We Can and Must Do Better

269 cities and municipalities were left in the dark due to Typhoon Odette’s wrath. Photo c/o OneNews.PH

Christmas season is for merrymaking with friends and family. And we Filipinos just love this festive season.

However, many times the December holidays are spent dealing with the aftermath of strong typhoons. 

We just suffered the wrath of  Typhoon Odette that left around 400 dead as of this writing and caused almost Php16.7 billion in damages. The typhoon has also brought darkness to millions as 269 cities and municipalities experienced blackouts as the typhoon damaged transmission facilities and toppled electric posts. The National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRMMC) said that full restoration of power in affected areas may happen in February. Thousands of families are also without water supply and are going hungry.

Typhoon Odette is once again showing us that we have a disaster in the recovery efforts for electricity because of bureaucratic legal inanities. The governors were looking for interim generators. None of the generating companies could bring in gensets because that would have required bidding and then an approval from the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC). The local government units (LGUs) themselves couldn’t bring in gensets for the grid because they are not licensed generators. 

The most logical entity to provide interim generators would have been the grid operator, National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP). For one, it has the financial muscle and is mandated to provide ancillary services. Unfortunately the ERC interprets that providing power as a backup ancillary is not within NGCP’s mandate. I disagree. However, it was suggested that Congress exempts NGCP from this supposed prohibition. Unfortunately, again Congress is in recess. So the President has to call for a special session. 

In the meantime people are dying. 

We should indeed look at how we respond to calamities. Take the case of Bohol. Governor Arthur Yap is decrying the bureaucracy in disaster response as paperwork is delaying Bohol’s plan to use power barges to put an end to the crippling absence of power. In an interview, the governor said he has sought exemptions required by three power distribution firms and NGCP to tap into other power sources.

The lack of electricity he said is paralyzing Bohol’s disaster response and communication especially since many towns still do not have capabilities. Governor Yap said he has been following up with the ERC for the exemptions but was told national agencies are still completing paperwork for the approval. These agencies want to ensure that approved rates are not breached with the additional expenses of tapping into new supply sources.

It’s time to review these regulations as they are obtuse.  It’s disheartening to hear local executives lamenting the slow response of the national government as it needs to comply with absurd laws. People are homeless, without food, almost dying due to dire conditions, and yet we insist on following irrational laws.

It’s not the first time we’ve been hit by strong typhoons. Many Filipinos often spend their December dealing with losses brought by weather disturbances.

In the last five years, Filipinos have had to deal with strong typhoons during December. We only have to recall Super Typhoon Nina in 2016, considered as the strongest Christmas Day tropical cyclone world wide dating to1960.  It made its landfall on Christmas day, hitting Catanduanes hardest. Typhoon Nina with International name Typhoon Nock-Ten, displaced some 380,000 individuals and cut power to five entire provinces.

Then there’s Tropical Storm Unman in 2018, the second deadliest weather disaster for that year. This storm hit the Bicol region the hardest and displaced at least 17,000 individuals in the region .

Scientists agree that the world’s weather is becoming more tumultuous with weather disasters taking home livelihoods, homes and lives. Sadly, the Philippines is considered as one of the world’s natural “hot spots” due to its topographical location. Thus, our country suffers more natural hazards than most nations. Filipinos have to endure droughts, landslides, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and floods more than any other country— even during the Christmas season.

There’s nothing much we can do about our location. But what we can work on is to build our resilience to natural disasters. 

Aside from fixing the bureaucratic issues and regulations, we should also work on building resilience to help mitigate the impact of natural disasters. 

As I have been discussing in previous posts, it’s time for us to make big investments in distributed energy resources (DERs). Recently, President Duterte signed Executive Order 156, for a “consistent and reliable electricity service” ordering the Department of Energy (DOE) to identify unviable, unserved, underserved and poorly served areas within the franchise areas of distribution utilities. 

The EO also orders the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to  “promulgate rules in computing rates that allow full cost recovery for the facilities built by microgrids, [distributed energy resources], and other alternative electric service providers.”

It’s a step in the right direction since many nations are moving towards distributed energy production, recognizing that traditional central power production has its limits and disadvantages.

Centralized power systems characterized by power lines traversing long distances are disastrous during a natural calamity. Damage to a single line can leave hundreds if not thousands of families without power.  Restoration of electricity takes time as the transmission company, distribution companies and electric cooperative have to assess which power lines were affected and damaged, an undertaking that takes time given the size of their service areas. Power restoration after a natural disaster also costs lives.

To increase disaster resilience, we must push for barangay-level microgrid systems, all renewable energy-based. This is already feasible these days given the decreasing costs of technologies both in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and power sectors.  The merging of these two sectors will usher in a new dawn for power consumers. Barangay -level power systems are cheaper in the long run and more resilient. Power restoration after a disaster will be faster with barangay level power systems.

There are also other technological tools we can utilize to increase disaster resilience.  

Currently many areas affected by Typhoon Odette are not only cut off from power supply but also from water supply. There’s this technology I’m now advocating to ensure continuous water supply using renewable energy. It’s a state-of-the-art desalination system running solely on solar power, and can be connected to tier the grid or the combination of solar and grid generator. It  can convert any lake, river, contaminated borehole and even floodwater into safe and clean drinking water. When fitted properly with a solar panel system, these desalination units can operate 24/7.

These are just some of the ways we can increase our resilience against natural disasters. We can take advantage of new advances in technology and our abundance in natural resources to mitigate the effects of natural disasters. We should also review our laws as they hinder disaster response.

It is very heartbreaking to see our countrymen begging for roofs, water, power and  food after losing their loved ones, their homes and livelihoods. Filipinos are naturally resilient and have a strong bayanihan spirit. But much like what many are saying, we shouldn’t rely solely on Filipino resilience but we should instead build more resilient communities. As we usher in a new year, it is my hope that we can find ways to build and support hazard mitigation and ensure proper and quick disaster response.