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The island province of Palawan is famous for its rich flora and fauna and natural beauty, with its spectacular beaches, pristine waters, and verdant forests. These features have attracted a lot of tourists and investments in the province.

But while tourism in Palawan is vibrant, constant power outages caused either by lack of power sources or inefficient distribution have hobbled the industry.

Power outages have been a common occurrence in the country’s largest province for years, affecting the daily lives of residents and hurting the local economy.

For students like Tobiel Leones, power interruptions hinder distance learning. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in the Philippines had to set up a way for students to learn in a virtual classroom. Stable internet access and electricity are very important for this to work.

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“There were times that classes were canceled because of scheduled brownouts that last up to four hours, which affect both students and professors, and which happen frequently. There were also times when power outages happened when we were presenting reports to class,” Leones, a 23-year-old student from Puerto Princesa City, said in Filipino.

To deal with power outages, students need to buy power banks so they can charge their phones for online classes as well as rechargeable fans, Leones said. Sometimes, students go to cafes or to the homes of their classmates who have electricity so they can still attend classes.

At the center of the province’s energy woes is the Palawan Electric Cooperative (PALECO), the lone power distribution company there. PALECO buys and supplies energy to 202,473 customers in the entire province. The cooperative also has 139,101 members.

Due to its poor service, PALECO has faced legal complaints and even threats from former President Rodrigo Duterte, who floated the idea of a government takeover of the electric cooperative.

Environmentalists and even government officials are pushing for a shift to renewable energy to provide Palaweños with more reliable electricity.

Is RE the solution?

For advocates of renewable energy, Palawan has a lot of clean energy potential. In fact, there are a number of solar power plants already operating in the province. Residents, especially those from the islands, are also harnessing solar power to provide electricity to their homes.

Puerto Princesa City Councilor Elgin Damasco said that tapping renewable energy sources is the most convenient way to help PALECO distribute electricity to consumers. He added that using renewable energy will also lower electricity rates.

“The government should invest [in renewable energy] to cut electricity rates […] The costs of gasoline and crude oil are high, so the electricity costs are also high,” Damasco said in Filipino.

“Meanwhile, nature is offering something free,” he added, referring to the sun, wind, water, and even waves.

Cesar Ventura, technical head for the preparation and completion of the Palawan Island Power Development Plan 2014–2035, also believes that renewable energy can save PALECO from such a crisis.

However, he emphasized that the proposed solution will only exist on paper if the province’s current leaders lack political will.Unfortunately, no candidates in the local elections had that kind of platform.

Palawan has already finalized its energy plan, according to Ventura, who said that the plan remains a “drawing.”

“No concrete plan is being envisioned to replace the bunker or diesel feed power generation. The independent power producers that operate power generation have invested too much in bunker or diesel feed engines in Palawan, and are not inclined to immediately replace this to renewable energy like solar,” Ventura said.

“Our politicians, the private sector, religious groups, and all Filipinos have to have one common goal: to adopt renewable energy and replace fossil fuels,” he added.

PALECO’s remedies

But for PALECO, renewable energy is not the solution to achieving a stable power supply in Palawan.

“What we need is a reliable and stable power supply so the power system will not be affected in case we have disturbances in operations,” the electric cooperative said.

Figures provided by PALECO showed that the average duration of power outages in 2021 per household or consumer was 29.83 minutes—barely passing the 30-minute standard required by the Energy Regulatory Commission. According to the power distributor, the figure only refers to official and scheduled brownouts, and outages caused by animals and tree branches hitting lines.

The interruptions due to the failure of the power provider and caused by storms or other disasters are counted.

Ventura recommended that PALECO improve the distribution system in order to minimize power interruptions. “So funding is needed,” he said.

In a bid to solve the problem, PALECO said it has changed the insulated conductors in areas declared as heavily vegetated, and is regularly conducting clearing activities. It added that the proposal to add substations is already in process. In Puerto Princesa, a substation is already being constructed.

PALECO also said that they are slowly starting the use of the supervisory control and data acquisition system for their capital expenditure projects to help them monitor and identify all phases of power lines that have problems. In the event of a blackout, the system will help PALECO restore electricity right away.

The student, Leones, is hoping that PALECO will do better in providing the service that Palaweños deserve.

“I acknowledge their efforts in providing electricity for every household, but I’m positive that they can do better in terms of serving the Palaweño people,” he said.

Cooperation

The bid to privatize PALECO as well as the proposal for a government takeover have been floated.

Palawan Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Dave Merigillano said that privatization may address the issue of reliability, but it may lead to more expensive services. He also believes that a government takeover can solve the problem, but bureaucracy might tear it down.

Damasco, who chairs the committee on energy in the Puerto Princesa City Council, agrees that a government takeover is the best solution.

PALECO, however, rejected the proposals. Connecting the province to the mainland Luzon power grid can solve the power problem, it stressed.

“If the Palawan grid gets connected to the Luzon grid, we can say that the power supply of PALECO will be reliable and stable because there are many sources of supply,” it said.

PALECO is seeking cooperation with and support from government agencies and the private sector. It also needs funds to finance all its programs and projects.

“The allocation of sufficient funds to implement infrastructure rehabilitation projects to maintain and raise the quality of service should be the focus. This is what we have been doing in recent years and will be doing in the years to come. But it goes through the process to also ensure that there is adequate financial capacity,” it said.

“This story was supported by Oxfam Philippines and Climate Tracker”

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