While the national economy is as vibrant as ever, millions of Filipinos have been left behind in the dark.
According to the Department of Energy (DOE), 12 million Filipinos lack electricity and millions more lack 24/7 electricity.
A World Bank study notes that lack of electricity results in poor health and education, more criminality, and lower incomes. It is no coincidence that our country’s 30 poorest provinces are also among the 30 with the most brownouts.
Consumers from these provinces have had enough. Groups such as “100% Brownout-Free Occidental Mindoro,” “Bantay PALECO” of Palawan, “Concerned Akelco Consumers” of Aklan have organized campaigns calling for the government to solve the power problems affecting their daily lives.
Local governments have taken action. Puerto Princesa City filed a legal complaint ordering PALECO to stop the “power interruptions…occurring more than twice a day,” noting it has “not taken any tangible step to remedy the situation, despite of it being recurring and worsening problem since 2009.”
Even President Duterte, in a visit to Puerto Princesa in 2018, challenged PALECO to improve its services or else face government take-over.
The President declared it unacceptable that “until this age,” there are still Filipinos living with regular brownouts.
This is consistent with a Pulse Asia survey indicating that 82 percent of Filipinos favor new options for electric service.
According to Pulse Asia director Ana Maria Tabunda, support for new options for electricity is consistent across all demographics in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.
New choices for electricity
The town of Paluan, Occidental Mindoro long suffered brownouts like these, prompting the local government to seek new choices for electricity.
In response, Solar Para Sa Bayan (SPSB) completed the largest Solar-Battery Microgrid in Southeast Asia at zero cost to government.
With solar panels, Tesla batteries, and backup diesel generators, SPSB serves Paluan 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at 50 percent below the full cost of the local electric coop.
Paluan Mayor Carl Pangilinan attested to the project’s benefits: “Throughout history, our town was denied service by the electric coop because of lack of supply in the whole Occidental Mindoro.
Everything changed when Paluan sought SPSB to provide stable, cheap, clean energy. Our municipality now enjoys 24/7 electricity, which has opened new opportunities for Palueños.”
SPSB has since begun serving over 12 towns, benefiting over 200,000 Filipinos, and has developed projects in 18 provinces.
With the speed and viability of solar microgrids, SPSB believes the DOE can achieve its goal for the Philippines to achieve 100 percent electrification by 2022.
Necessity for a microgrid franchise
The main obstacle preventing the total electrification of the Philippines are electric coops who seek to block the entry of competition.
In the case of Paluan, the Occidental Mindoro Electric Cooperative has insisted that SPSB cease its operations because Paluan is part of its franchise area.
The Philippine Rural Electric Cooperatives Association said its members would defend their “electricity franchise privileges” and “cannot be expected to peacefully yield their jobs anytime soon to the private sector.”
In this light, SPSB applied for its own franchise. House Bill 8179 grants SPSB the non-exclusive right to operate microgrids in “remote and unviable, or unserved or underserved areas in selected provinces of the Philippines.”
Unlike the existing Qualified Third Party (QTP) program, which has energized just three barangays in 18 years and is subsidized by the government, this franchise (1) Enables projects without needing the consent of the existing utility, (2) Covers underserved municipalities, not just unserved barangays, (3) Reduces permitting requirements, (4) Creates an effective alternative, while respecting rights of existing utilities and paving the way for others to offer better service to consumers.
Extensively amended based on stakeholder inputs
House Bill 8179’s final version (1) Limits the scope to “remote and unviable, unserved, or underserved areas,” in selected provinces with less than two percent of demand of the Philippines, (2) Requires use of renewable energy, (3) Subjects the grantee to regulation by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) and DOE, pursuant to EPIRA, (4) Obligates the grantee to provide reliable service, with financial penalties, (5) Explicitly states the grantee “shall not be entitled to any government subsidy.”
This incorporates inputs of industry stakeholders from extensive congressional hearings, to ensure the franchise is highly regulated and compliant with EPIRA and the constitution, respects existing franchises, and enables DOE and ERC to impose further safeguards.
This means even greater restrictions on SPSB than existing utilities, limiting it to marginal areas and prohibiting it from receiving any government subsidy.
Self-Serving electric cooperatives
Despite this, electric coops, with their power suppliers, have purchased full-page newspaper ads to call SPSB’s entry into their areas unfair and prejudicial to their interests, arguing that brownouts are due to “many factors that are beyond the[ir] control”.
These newspapers ads focus on the interests of electric coops, and fail to disprove that SPSB’s projects have benefited thousands of Filipinos, and that House Bill 8179 stands to benefit many more Filipinos who have for years been left in the dark.
Paluan Electric Consumers Association representative Jeffrey Huertas wrote: “We appeal to our leaders to look past self-serving positions of electric coops who wish to prevent the entry of competition, and companies who do not even know what it’s like in areas with inadequate electricity. We trust the government will choose what is good for consumers like us, who are benefiting from the service of SPSB, and allow other towns to enjoy a new choice for electricity by approving House Bill 8179.”
Carlo Alcano of the Solar Energy Association of Davao Oriental wrote: “So many Filipinos have never seen a light bulb, most of all in Mindanao. Now we have a solution and it is only coops who want to block it. Is it to protect the over 30 billion pesos a year they receive in government subsidies? Or the billions more they collect from consumers for their poor service? It is time we end this humanitarian crisis and finally give our people what they have long deserved.”
100 percent electrification by 2022
Should the bill become a law, SPSB has made its commitment clear: “Congress approved House Bill 8179 not for SPSB, but for the Filipino people. We owe it to the consumers who fought for this bill to do our utmost to support this administration’s goal of achieving 100 percent electrification and ending energy poverty by 2022, and do this without need for government subsidy.”
For decades, Philippine presidents have tried and failed to reach 100 percent nationwide electrification. Now, we have a solution, with the potential to energize the entire country by 2022 and add to the list of reasons why this administration will be remembered as the one that did the most to improve the lives of ordinary Filipinos.