BEFORE we decide who will hold the power during the elections in May, we must face a possible crisis of a different type of power.

Latest reports from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) forecast a possible shortage in energy supply during the summer months, even with an optimistic outlook. While such a problem has happened in previous years, the activities and impacts of the upcoming polls make it a more significant issue.

The problem

The second quarter of the year usually features increased electricity demand and decreased supply. Last year, the Luzon grid observed "red alert," with rotational blackouts occurring in numerous areas. Luzon currently comprises 73 percent of the national electricity consumption, with a higher expected peak demand this year.

To accommodate this situation, a Grid Operating and Maintenance Program was recently approved by DOE, which directs power plants to avoid maintenance shutdowns during the next few months, except for hydropower. However, some of the country's coal plants are old, making them more likely to experience unplanned shutdowns that threaten the power grid. Several coal-powered generating units might also either underperform or not operate at all, adding to potential supply problems.

Along with the Covid-19 pandemic exposing the inflexibility of these systems to sudden changes in energy demand, these could result in even more increases on electricity rates, which are already the second highest in Asia and a burden for many Filipino consumers.

Ultimately, this boils down to the long-term problem in the Philippines's energy sector: the continuing preference for fossil fuels, especially on coal, with the assumption that they are cheaper. The DOE justifies this through a "technology neutral" policy, which prioritizes power supply agreements and energy technologies with the least cost. Yet this notion has been proven to be outdated by recent developments.

The price of electricity from solar has become competitive, if not already lower, than that from coal. Current accounting of true costs also fails to consider the costs of environmental pollution from burning coal, as well as its importation that makes its prices volatile in markets. Global trends, most notably the outcomes of last year's climate summit in Glasgow, indicate the growing need to say no to coal.

The calls

A looming power crisis for the Philippines makes energy security a critical issue that those running in the upcoming elections need to address. Vague, sweet-sounding promises are simply not enough; voters must hear concrete pledges and targets for policies related to coal phase-out, renewable energy development, and divestment from dirty energy, especially for those running for the presidency and vice presidency.

Candidates must also have strong commitments against false solutions to the nation's energy security problems. Natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, is being pushed by many as the intermediary fuel in the pending just transition from coal to renewables like solar, wind, and more hydropower.

At the end of the day, natural gas is a fossil fuel, like coal, which is a main reason for the climate crisis. This means that investing in this fuel source would only lead to similar issues the Philippines is currently experiencing from coal. Developing cleaner, more sustainable energy sources for a more flexible, consumer-friendly power sector and saying no to natural gas, as well as nuclear and waste-to-energy, must be part of every candidate's agenda.

Yet the fact remains that we could be in for a power crisis in the upcoming months, which needs immediate solutions. First, the DOE and NGCP must lead in ensuring that current power plants would operate at full capacities, especially during peak hours. Assessing the compliance of plant operators, including the lack of unscheduled shutdowns, has never been more crucial in a country hindered by poor implementation of climate, environmental, and energy laws and policies.

Second, consumers must be informed of the state of their respective power grids to empower them to use electricity wisely. Both government and non-government stakeholders must collaborate for educational and awareness-raising campaigns to different communities, sharing practices for energy conservation and efficiency.

Third, the deployment of small-scale renewables technologies could help energy suppliers meet the high demand. Government agencies could formalize public-private partnerships with power companies to send solar or hybrid devices to cities and municipalities. Election hotspots, particularly in far-flung areas, may be designated as among the priority beneficiaries of these technologies.

Fourth, the current administration must use its final months to strengthen other existing energy-related laws and policies and enhance the resilience and sustainability of the power sector. Improving the implementation of the decade-old Renewable Energy Act and the recently passed Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act would help set the stage for the next leadership to avoid more red alerts, price hikes, and rotating brownouts from harming consumers.

Last but certainly not the least... vote wisely.