Blackouts hit Luzon, affect 1M customers

Jojo Riñoza and Camille Elemia
2022.09.14
Manila
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Blackouts hit Luzon, affect 1M customers A Dagupan Electric Corp. lineman works on power lines in Dagupan City, Philippines, March 2015.
[Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

Blackouts have hit the Philippines’ biggest and most populated island after 10 power plants went down or reduced output because of coal shortages, as experts warn of a possible crisis in a country with some of the highest electricity costs in Southeast Asia.

The National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) placed the grid throughout Luzon on “red alert” status Monday after power plant outages, which began at the weekend, led to shortages of electricity. A red alert is a warning that blackouts are possible.

By Wednesday, the state-run utility announced several blackouts. Seven plants had gone down and three others decreased their output, NGCP said, leading to the outages that affected about 1 million people across Luzon.

“We are ready … [to implement] rotating power interruptions ... as part of our responsibility to manage the system,” the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) said in a statement on Monday.

Coal-fired plants account for more than 50 percent of electricity generation for Luzon while about 30 percent are powered by natural gas from the deep-water Malampaya gas field, according to the government. 

In September 2021, the U.S. International Trade Administration noted that the Philippines faced a mounting energy crisis because the Malampaya field was expected to be used up by 2024.

Elsewhere, the nation’s two other grids, in the Visayas and Mindanao regions, experienced similar outages, according to authorities. The Luzon and Visayas grids are connected, while the Mindanao grid is a standalone.

Between 2016 and 2021, the NGCP issued 22 red and 154 yellow alerts across all three grids. Red alerts warn of potential blackouts while yellow alerts warn of potential brownouts because of excessive demand.

The latest blackouts occurred just weeks after Energy Secretary Raphael Lotilla told a Senate hearing in August that the country had enough electricity supplies through February 2023.

‘Regular occurrence’

In July, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry expressed concerns that power outages had “become a regular occurrence especially during the summer months when the output of our hydroelectric power plants decrease significantly,” even as Filipino consumers pay higher rates than their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries.

“Studies have shown that electricity rates for residential, commercial and the industrial sectors in the Philippines have been significantly higher from between 25 percent to as high as 87 percent than its ASEAN neighbors, namely, Malaysia (87.5 percent), Indonesia (87.5 percent), Vietnam (50 percent) and Thailand (36 percent),” the chamber said in a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, a senator has warned of a potential crisis in the country where growth in electricity production has failed to keep pace with demand. 

Last year, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, former chairman of the energy committee, said the country “could be facing a major energy crisis in less than six years” unless it found alternative sources for natural gas. 

“In the medium to long run, a new power supply should come on in a timely manner,” Gatchalian told BenarNews in a text message on Wednesday. ”If not, we will experience power interruptions as the country opens its economy and the demand for electricity is growing.” 

In 2018, Manila and Beijing began talks on possible joint exploration of offshore oil and gas resources in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The Philippines abandoned those discussions over constitutional and sovereignty issues at the end of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s term in June.

An international arbitration court ruled in 2016 that the Philippines had sovereign rights to energy reserves inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone. China, which claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea as its territory, has refused to recognize that decision.

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