Breaking Free from Coal

The government appears to ignore the growing clamor to end the use of coal in the Philippines. It continues to justify coal investments to the country’s growing economy and the energy crisis.

Last March 30, Department of Energy Secretary Zenaida Monsada said, “Even if all coal-fired power plants were closed, there would be no significant impact on the climate change situation in the country.”

Monsada, who firmly stated that the Philippines cannot stop coal plants also said that the plants have already been planned five years ago and a number of these are already under construction.

“We need power,” Monsada added. However, she also noted that the DoE was implementing stricter standards.

PH’s energy needs

The Philippines has had a history of energy crises. In the early 1990s, the Philippines experienced power outages under the presidency of Corazon Aquino, the mother of the current president. At present, parts of the Philippines are experiencing rotating blackouts, such as in Davao City and Iloilo City. In addition, an estimated 2.7-million Filipinos still do not have access to electricity.

President Benigno Aquino III is clearly scared of having to undergo the same horrific situation as his mother had to go through in terms of energy crisis. His answer to this problem: “cheap” coal.

In his State of the Nation Address in 2013, PNoy famously said, “Did they happen to mention that renewable energy is also more expensive—from the cost of building the plants to the eventual price of energy? Did they mention that it cannot provide the baseload—the capacity required to make sure brownouts do not occur? If you put up a wind-powered plant, what do you do when there is no wind? If you put up a solar plant, what do you when the sky is cloudy?”

Coal is not cheap

However, that renewable energy is more expensive is a myth that needs to be debunked.

In Greenpeace’s report, Green Is Gold, coal is only cheap if its consequences and external costs are not taken into consideration such as health hazards, damage to agriculture and fisheries, and the economic costs of environmental damage due to climate change.

According to the same report, the Philippine Environment Monitor estimates that “the Philippine economy wastes $1.5 billion due to air pollution and spends more than $400 million in direct costs to health expenses.”

The 600-MW Masinloc Thermal Power Project in Zambales has also been linked to the decrease in fruit yield by 33 percent and less catch for fishermen since the plant began operations in 1998. The plant discharged its waste materials directly to Oyon Bay.

National Renewable Energy Board Chair Pete Maniego agrees. “When external costs are factored-in, coal is actually the most expensive and burdensome option for the Filipino people,” he said.

In addition, Maniego notes that Renewable Energy is more cost-friendly and provides immediate benefits to consumers.

“The Philippine Electricity Market Corporation released its study which showed that the power supply from new RE plants resulted to a net savings of more than Php 4 billion to consumers in 2016 due to lower spot market prices attributable to the increased RE supply,” he adds.

We don’t need more coal. We should invest more in RE

According to Maniego, a report from the DoE’s Power Bureau to the NREB last month said that the base-load supply already exceeds base-load demand in Luzon and Visayas. Base-load supply is projected to exceed the demand in Mindanao after the completion of the coal-fired plants under construction this year.

“Therefore, once all of the new coal plants are operational within the year, there will be no more energy crisis even in Mindanao,” Maniego said.

In fact, once all the new approved coal plants are built, the base-load supply will greatly exceed demand. According to Maniego, once power is generated, it must be utilized and end-users are paid to absorb the excess power. The negative pricing will eventually be passed on to consumers.

Maniego adds that the Philippines has barely tapped its renewable energy potential.  Solar power is only limited by available space—whether land, rooftop or water areas. Wind potential is estimated at 76,000 MW, geothermal at 4,000 MW, hydro at 10,000 MW, biomass at 4,400 MW and ocean at 170,000 MW. The total installed capacities of geothermal and hydro power plants are only 1,906 MW and 3,850 MW respectively.

“We have more than enough indigenous renewable energy potential to be fully energy self-sufficient and independent,” Maniego said.

Note, too, that renewable energy plants such as solar farms and wind farms are faster to build than coal plants.

“Small solar installations can be built in a matter of weeks. Large solar and wind farms can be constructed in less than a year after pre-development activities. In contrast a typical coal plant will take two to four years to construct,” he said.

Break free from coal

The government has time and again justified its support of the coal industry but the data is clear: we have enough renewable energy potential for the energy needs of the country. What seems to be lacking is the political will to start phasing out coal.

While we cannot close all existing coal power plants all at once, we need to stop investing in new coal plants and start a slow phase out of those already existing. The Philippines has committed to 70-percent mitigation of carbon emissions by 2030 and that we are a low carbon emitter is no longer an excuse to continue polluting. Monsada’s statement is true—there will be no change in the country’s climate change situation should all coal power plants close today. And yes, the Philippines barely contributes to global carbon emissions, as many politicians would like to say. But they are missing the point.

The point is this: While the Philippines contributes little to global carbon emissions, investing in coal should no longer be an option if this government truly cares about its people. How can a country most affected by climate change continue to invest in dirty energy that has largely contributed to climate change and has, in turn, claimed thousands of Filipino lives?

Many countries have committed to emission reduction and while current commitments are not yet enough for us to curb global warming to at least 2 degrees celsius, continuous investments in coal are pulling the world back to where we envision our future planet to be: clean and sustainable.

My question to the Philippine government is this: Are we ready to move forward and be part of the energy revolution or do we want to be left behind in the age of fossil fuels?


Article originally published in The Standard