SPECIAL REPORT: No end in sight to ‘unrelenting’ power outages

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During the PALECO 2nd Queterly Press conference. Photo by Sevedeo Borda III / Palawan Daily News
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It appears there’s no end in sight to the almost daily rotational power outages Palawan has been experiencing for years.

While the mainland province’s lone power distributor Palawan Electric Cooperative (Paleco) said it is seeking short and long term solutions that would end the power woes, its officials did not assure the consumers of a blackout-free Palawan.

“We can’t say the problem will be solved once and for all because after solving this another problem might crop up,” said Paleco board chairman Jeffrey Endriga in a press conference on June 26.

This developed after the incensed Puerto Princesa City government had taken to the court the issue to make Paleco officials liable for their “incompetence,” further demanding them to pay the former P1,000,000 in damages.

The “unrelenting” power outages happen in Palawan “more than twice a day in different circuits (areas) at various intervals,” noted the city government in its class suit filed with the Regional Trial Court on June 24.

HURTING THE LOCAL ECONOMY

The filing of the complaint against the electric cooperative was galvanized by a signed petition of over 2,000 dismayed residents. It came two years after city officials first announced the planned legal action in 2017.

“It affects the city government, the establishments, and the economy of Puerto Princesa in general. If we’re going to add up what we’re losing to unannounced brownouts, it will definitely reach millions upon millions,” City Mayor Lucilo Bayron told the media.

Bayron recalled the frequent power outages all started in 2009 and have recurred for 10 years now.

Not only Puerto Princesa residents are bearing the brunt of daily power interruptions, but also those in Palawan towns like Narra, which is located 92 km south of the city. It especially hits hard micro-businesses with no readily available backup power generator set to continue its operation.

“It’s stunting the growth of small businesses like us,” shared eatery manager Krysiah Joy Fabro. “No power means fewer customers and meager income for businesses.”

“During blackouts, there are food and beverage we can’t offer because producing them requires the use of our electric-powered blender and oven. Plus we can’t use our fans and lights, rendering the dining area uninviting. So these factors drive away potential customers. And if there’s a blackout late in the afternoon, we have no choice but to close early.” she added.

POWER LINE OBSTRUCTIONS

For years, Paleco has been on the receiving end of criticisms. Even President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to take away the cooperative’s franchise should it fails to shape up.

More than 6 months ago since President Duterte issued the stern warning, Paleco’s poor service remains, if not worsens, critics say.

Paleco said it already solved the undersupply problem due to the failure of Paleco’s three independent power providers (IPPs) to deliver their guaranteed dependable capacity or contracted power, which was previously the top cause of power outages in the mainland grid.

Now it’s grappling with another challenge: trees that obstruct their distribution lines.

Engr. Nelson Lalas, Paleco acting general manager, prefers the trees to be cleared as these can topple distribution lines and cause power outages, especially this rainy season when strong winds blow.

“The problem: we’re only authorized to trim just the branches,” Lalas told the media. “If the certain branches are on top of the power lines… when the wind blows, they can fall on the lines and surely [power outages] will occur.”

In instances when the trees pose harm to people’s welfare and need to be cut down, Felizardo Cayatoc, chief of Community Environment and Natural Resources Office in Puerto Princesa City, reminded Paleco to secure the necessary permits.

“If not, they (Paleco) will be liable under the Presidential Decree 705 (Forestry Reform Code) or other existing environmental laws,” Cayatoc warned in a text message.

As “securing cutting permits takes time,” Endriga offers a “somehow harsh solution” to this age-old vegetation issue. For him, consumers need to choose one: sacrifice trees or enjoy uninterrupted power.

“The question here is ‘what’s our priority? The service of diligently distributing power to each member-customer-owner or the trees we don’t want to give up because we want to preserve them?’”

Endriga said electric cooperatives are pushing for the passage of Anti-Obstruction of Power Lines Act to finally address this vegetation issue that causes power interruption. “We can’t solve this in just overnight, what we need is the passage of this law,” he added.

The proposed law will prohibit the planting of tall-growing plants — whether on public or private property — that may obstruct the power lines. It also provides guidelines for their removal.

ECO-FRIENDLY OPTIONS

Of course, the idea of felling trees doesn’t sit well in Palawan where environmentalism runs high.

Lawyer Robert Chan, executive director of Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), believes “instead of cutting of trees, pruning and deviation are more prudent alternatives.” “These may be costly but in the long run they will prove to be the correct method,” he said in a text message.

Palawan boasts of almost 700,000 hectares of forest, constituting 10% of the Philippines forest cover, the largest of all the provinces in the country, Palawan Council for Sustainable Development data show.

“Existing trees, especially in the city, are our only carbon sink measures against climate change, and value should be placed on them unsparingly,” Chan stressed.

However, the island province dubbed as the country’s last ecological frontier is losing an average of 8.8 hectares of forest a day or 3,200 hectares a year, partly due to “development,” which includes electrification.

Madrono Cabrestante, PCSD Staff’s environmental management specialist, said development is inevitable but it has to be balanced with conservation.

“There is always a win-win solution. Let’s not go towards extreme ecocentrism (environment-centered) or anthropocentrism (human-centered),” he said in an online interview.

Cabrestante said Paleco needs “a multi-stakeholder evaluation of all available options.” “Can it (tree-cutting) be avoided, or can the electrical lines be diverted? Weigh the benefits and costs, both to society and the environment, of cutting the trees vis-a-vis the recipients of power.”

In case clearing trees is unavoidable, he advised to “earth-ball the trees and plant elsewhere, or cut them [down] then replace them with new tree seedlings in places where these can grow unimpeded or where they can provide ecosystem services.”

Lawyer Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), in a separate online interview, suggested that the “better strategy is to bury the wires in an insulated pipeline like in other countries.”

MITIGATION MEASURE

While long term solutions are underway, Paleco has been installing insulated wires in vegetated areas since December last year to lessen the recurrence of power interruptions. These outages especially happened in the past when wild animals like squirrels, bats, snakes, and even geckos went up on trees and found their way into the high-voltage power lines.

“Our lines are typical to rural and even private electric cooperatives. They are bare or uncoated wires. The challenge there is that they should be free from any debris or obstruction,” Paleco engineer Ricardo Adajao explained.

“Naturally, whatever animals that may come in contact with those lines will get electrocuted…[then] it will cause the [line] to trip,” added Adajao, Paleco’s technical services department chief.

As to the installation of insulated wires, Paleco only prioritizes those in areas with thick vegetation and so far finished 8 kilometers out of its nearly 4,000-kilometer distribution lines.

UNRELIABLE ENGINES

Paleco said it currently enjoys an oversupply of power. So far, its three IPPs — DMCI, PPGI, and Delta P —can provide around 66 megawatts or more than the current monthly peak demand of around 57 MW.

Still, not all is well.

Another reason contributing to the occurrence of power outages is the breakdown from time to time of the IPPs’ aged-old engines due to excessive use.

Paleco’s Endriga, however, said it can’t be a violation as he claimed it’s not clearly stated in the contracts. He added that these contracts will be reviewed for possible inclusion of this provision.

“Now, the issue we’re facing is the reliability [of power engines]. The contract, however, is silent if this scenario constitutes a violation [that would earn them penalties],” he said.

What’s only defined in the supply agreement, Endriga said, is the imposition of penalties for failure on the part of the IPP to deliver its contracted power.

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