KORONADAL CITY -- The rotating brownouts in Central Mindanao could last until June or July, as the region's power supply condition worsened further Thursday, causing around 10-hour outages in several localities that have affected workers' productivity, officials said.

And in a bid to curb losses to companies, the regional Department of Labor and Employment called on electric distributors across the region to schedule the brownouts to allow companies to adjust their work programs.

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In the wake of this development, bishops will be releasing a special prayer “Oratio Imperata” to cope up with the impending El Niño phenomenon in some areas in the country.

The El Niño phenomenon has caused the reduction of water levels in dams that supports hydro-electric plants which supplied a big bulk of Mindanao’s power supply.

Nacionalista Party (NP) standard bearer Manny Villar also vowed Thursday to work for the full and immediate privatization of all National Power Corp. (Napocor) power plants and power purchase agreements as a major step to solve the country's energy problems, particularly in Mindanao.

"Fully implement the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) law which provides for the full privatization of Napocor's power plants, as well as all PPAs. This is priority A-1 under my presidency," Villar said.

Thursday's blackout, which was almost straight 10 hours from just two hours on rotating basis in this city, the regional seat of government of Central Mindanao, came unannounced.

Workers at a machine shop here were seen playing card games to while away the time while elsewhere government employees rushed out of their offices to escape the heat as the power shortage paralyzed operations.

Santiago C. Tudio, South Cotabato Electric Cooperative I manager, said the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) further curtailed load supply in Central Mindanao region, causing blackouts in this city and in the towns of Tantangan and Tampakan in South Cotabato and Lutayan in Sultan Kudarat.

Blackouts also hit the Cotabato Electric Cooperative and the Lanao del Sur Electric Cooperative, which serves North Cotabato and Lanao del Sur towns respectively, he added.

"Consumers should brace for longer power outages that could last until June or July," Tudio told reporters, citing the lack of new power generating units in Mindanao that could have addressed the situation.

He noted that power produced from the Agus plants has been reduced to 50 percent capacity and Pulangi dams declining to 75 percent, due to the continued decline of water level as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.

For South Cotabato, the NGCP curtailed 18 megawatts (MW), out of the nearly 30 MW required daily by the province, Tudio said.

Ma. Gloria A. Tango, regional labor department director, said no firms in the region so far have notified the agency of workers' retrenchment as a result of the abnormal power condition.

"The companies are implementing flexible work schedules to adjust to the electricity shortage," she said in a phone interview, adding that the regional office has yet to formulate a contingency measure once business firms cut their workforce due to the power crisis.

She called on electric utilities to fix the brownout schedules so that companies could prepare or adjust work schedules.

But next month, Tango said regional wage boards across Mindanao will meet in Davao City to discuss the power supply situation with the energy sector and labor and private business leaders.

"The power shortage could lead to the impact that may trigger clamors for wage hike increases among workers," she warned, apparently referring to lower productivity pay to some workers due to shorter work hours.

Villar on the other hand explained that the power situation in Mindanao continues to worsen because the government has been unable to institute measures to bring in investments in the power sector.

The last power plant that was opened in Mindanao was in 2007 when a coal-fired plant in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental was inaugurated.

Other proposed power plants like the 42.5-MW hydropower plant in Sibulan, Davao del Sur and the 27-MW Tamugan hydropower plant in Davao City will still take years before coming on-stream, while a 200-MW coal-fired plant in Maasim, Sarangani is expected to start operations by 2012.

"Mindanao continues to labor under a lack of investments in its power sector. This has discouraged many investors from setting up factories and economic zones in the region. I intend to pave the way for these investors to come in and generate economic activity and jobs in the region," Villar said.

At the same time, the NP presidential candidate pledged to prioritize the development of alternative energy in the country by creating pilot sites in Mindanao.

"I will task agencies like the Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Science and Technology to draw up an alternative energy master plan and develop pilot projects in Mindanao," Villar said.

In 2007, oil accounted for 55.9 percent of the country’s energy demand followed by coal at 23.9 (percent), gas (12.4 percent) and hydro electric energy (7.8 percent).

The power supply in Mindanao continues to worsen as the shortage has now hit 358 MW, according to NGCP.

Save for Davao City, which still has adequate power supply, most provinces in Mindanao are now experiencing rotating brownouts of between four to ten hours.

NGCP data showed that the available capacity on the island was now only 842 MW as against peak demand of 1,200 MW.

Rain prayer

Cebu Archdiocese spokesperson Monsignor Achilles Dakay said bishops will release their special prayer on February 28.

“This coming Sunday, maglalabas na kami ng Oratio Imperata,” he said, in an interview over Radio Veritas 846.

Dakay added that the prayer is in anticipation of the big effect of the drought on crops as well as farm lands.

The “Oratio Imperata” is a special prayer for a special intention, besides the ones prescribed by rituals that the Pope or the bishop of a diocese may require to be said during Mass in all parishes.

Basilan Bishop Martin Jumoad said they will also release their own Oratio Imperata in a circular letter to pray for it to rain.

Likewise, Jumoad is appealing to other prelates and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) council to release a nationwide Oratio Imperata since many farmers are now affected by the El Niño.

“I am appealing too, to my co-bishops, to CBCP council na maglabas na ng nationwide Oratio Imperata dahil halos lahat ng mga magsasaka sa ating bansa ay apektado na ng El Niño,” he said.

On the other hand, Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal recently met with officials of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to discuss the environmental programs in the various parishes of the archdiocese.

The Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) earlier reported that the El Niño phenomenon hitting the country is expected to worsen in the coming months.

Experts said the areas that are likely to be hit by the natural calamity are the whole of Luzon and Western Visayas. (FP/Bong Sarmiento and Nelson Bagaforo of Sun.Star Davao/Bong Garcia/Sunnex)