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As the weather bureau declares the start of the warm and dry season, it is likely that households and business will soon find themselves suffering from a power shortage. Perhaps not a repeat of what people experienced in the early 1990s, but bad just the same. Rotating outages may soon be commonplace again, and perhaps nationwide, but more so in Metro Manila and Luzon.
The 1990s energy crisis was resolved not by conservation, as there was nothing to conserve at that point. It was actually fixed by a Congress that agreed to give the President special powers through legislation. And then President Fidel Ramos used these special powers to address the crisis. What he put in place were not perfect solutions, but they were sufficient for that time.
Some 30 years later and we are still having problems with energy supply. It is about time that the House and the Senate, along with the President, come up with longer-lasting initiatives to ensure energy security which, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, means “having stable access to energy sources on a timely, sustainable, and affordable basis.”
And this is of prime importance precisely because “access to energy is not only crucial in supporting the provision of basic needs — such as food, lighting, water, and essential healthcare — but it is first and foremost a precondition to economic growth, political stability and prosperity,” the group said. Simply put, energy security and human development go hand in hand.
We need more urgency from our legislators in addressing this matter, and for them to proactively work to put long-term solutions in place. It is even comical that one senator keeps pushing for more charging stations for electric vehicles, perhaps forgetting the fact that charging stations are useless if there is no electricity. We need more power plants first.
According to the rules of the Senate, the Energy committee handles all matters relating to the following:
• Department of Energy
• Exploration, exploitation, development, extraction, importation, refining, transport, marketing, distribution, conservation, or storage of all forms of energy products and resources such as from fossil fuels like petroleum, coal, natural gas and gas liquids, and nuclear fuel resources
• Geothermal resources and non-conventional, existing and potential forms of energy resources
• Generation, transmission and distribution of electric power
• The National Power Corp.
• The National Transmission Corp.
• The National Grid Corp. of the Philippines
So, the question is, what is the committee doing at present to help make things easier for the people this summer? Is it working on long-term solutions to power shortages that occur every dry season? Is it encouraging, through regulation and policy, more investments particularly in power generation? Or, is it just pushing for conservation as the remedy?
The Senate energy committee is chaired by Senator Raffy Tulfo, a neophyte senator. He leads 14 other senators in the committee who are expected to pass laws related to energy. I am uncertain at this point whether Senator Tulfo is proactively working on any bill related to energy, particularly boosting power generation and addressing the imminent power shortage. I hope he is, because we need this urgently.
Congress and the Senate need to provide for an environment that gives industries and businesses access to stable, reliable, and affordable power. This way, producers and retailers can provide for the basic needs of consumers without having to significantly raise their prices on account of expensive electricity. Lower electricity prices also benefit consumers at home.
Juan Ponce Enrile, at one point, ran a senatorial campaign on the back of the power issue. Senator Tulfo, who is rumored to be looking at a vice-presidential run in 2028, might want to consider using the energy issue to his advantage. He is long on popularity, but short on government experience, and even shorter on legislative track record. Now is his time to shine.
And one issue he can choose to tackle is the process of electricity pricing, particularly in times of crises. The problem at Ukraine, and its impact on fuel prices, is not something that will soon go away. In fact, it can still escalate. And as long as that issue is ongoing, world oil and coal prices will remain unstable and most likely be higher than normal. Add to this the economic resurgence worldwide, and increased demand for oil and coal, as economies recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Senate energy committee chaired by Senator Tulfo might want to proactively work on solutions by calling more hearings on rising electricity prices nationwide. And considering how slow the legislative process can be, the committee needs to work urgently on proposed legislation that intend to boost power supply and stabilize local electricity prices.
With the help of Senator Sherwin Gatchalian as his vice-chairman, I believe Senator Tulfo can lead his committee to breakthroughs in power sector reform. We need a reliable and affordable power supply to grow the economy and meet the demands of a growing population. Emerging from two years of various restriction protocols and lockdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Philippine economic recovery is now imperiled by high fuel and electricity prices and a looming power shortage.
We have been here before, about 30 years ago, and yet when it comes to ensuring stable affordable electricity supply, we have not gone far from square one. No one wants to go back to the dark ages on the early 1990s. Had we operated the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, things might have been different for us.
Bottomline, the Ramos administration “solved” the power crises through emergency powers granted by the 1991 Energy Crisis Act to conclude contracts for new power generation. In short, the solution came from Congress — the House and the Senate. There is a big role to be played here by the energy committees at both houses.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council