The Philippines was once the second largest producer of geothermal power in the world. Sadly, this is no longer true.
Last year, the Mineral Resources Industry of Indonesia announced that its country’s geothermal power production has reached 1,800 megawatts (MW), making the country the second largest geothermal power producer. The Philippines, on the other hand, production has decreased from 1850 MW to 1600. We now just rank third.
There are many reasons for our country’s lower geothermal power production. And we need to look at the history of geothermal power development in the country to understand how we got to our current state.
In the early 1970s, the government had a partnership with Union Oil Company of California, or Unocal, now known as Chevron. Under this partnership, the Unocal will provide technical expertise while the Philippine government, through the National Power Corporation on NPC will build and operate the geothermal plants. In 1976, the government decided to do away with the private sector and build and do the exploration with Philippine National Oil Corporation-Exploration Development Corporation (PNOC-EDC) as the head agency.
At the height of the power crisis in the 1990s, the National Power Corporation signed an agreement with PNOC-EDC, then a government corporation, to develop and provide 700 MW of geothermal power in Leyte. This move catapulted the Philippines to the second largest producer of geothermal power in the world. We were second only to the US.
The Electric Power Industry Reform Act or EPIRA was a game changer for the energy sector. With the passage of this law, geothermal power exploration and development was left to the hands of the private sector. This means that the private sector has to spend for the exploration of possible geothermal sources and build the power plants, which are expensive. Exploration expenses cost more than half of the total project cost for geothermal power plant projects. And test drilling just a single hole can cost some $5 million as it is the most costly phase of the exploration. It is the private firm that assumes the cost and risk of the exploration activities.
The high capital needed for greenfield exploration is one of the reasons why most private entities stay away from geothermal power development. There was a time when the government shouldered the cost of the preliminary survey of the areas, but this is now being assumed by the private sector developer.
Unfortunately, our regulations do not help in making geothermal exploration and development enticing to investors. On the contrary, our regulators have little appreciation for the risks being taken by geothermal developers in our tariff setting.
I have talked about this greatly in a separate post. But to put it simply, we use the BETA in the computation of the cost of equity under the Capital Asset Pricing Model or CAPM for our tariff setting. The Beta in the tariff equation determines the return on equity for any project. And sadly, the Energy Regulatory Commission uses the same Beta of ~1.03 for all power plant project regardless of technology. This means that the ERC does not consider the risk profile of the power plant project. This is an incorrect application of the CAPM and sadly puts geothermal power developers at a disadvantage since they assume the high-risks of the exploration but will not be properly compensated for it.
Why the ERC insists on using the same Beta for all power projects is mind- boggling especially since it has long been established that geothermal development is a high-risk undertaking. A study conducted by the International Finance Corporation years ago concluded that only 60 percent of the explored holes during geothermal exploration worldwide turned out to be successful.
The ERC’s attitude towards geothermal energy is just one of the regulatory issues that renewable energy advocates and developers have to contend with. Overall, previous administrations have paid little attention to renewable energy development anyway. Unfortunately, the lack of opportunities in this field has also lead geothermal energy experts to find work in other countries such as Indonesia.
It is no wonder why many local investors are not too keen to get into geothermal development in the Philippines. It also does not help that our constitution prevents us from getting more foreign investors to help us develop our natural resources.
It’s sad that a country like ours is missing the missing out on the benefits of geothermal power. The Philippines also has a great advantage in geothermal since we are located in the ring of fire and has many volcanic areas where geothermal resources are abundant. In fact, some studies show that the Philippines 2,047 MW of proven reserves and 4,790 MW of potential reserves.
We have to keep in mind that geothermal energy can act as a base load plant, which makes it a great substitute for traditional sources of power. And if we can just use geothermal power to replace coal, then we can surely enjoy cheaper power rates. Geothermal energy, as well as any other renewable power technologies, have a fixed price as I have discussed previously. This means Filipinos will no longer have to pay for the fluctuating cost of international coal prices and foreign exchange rates.
The Philippines’ drop to third place in geothermal energy production worldwide only shows that the lack of government support for renewable energy development has dire consequences. It may be a pity that we now rank lower than our neighbor. But what’s worse is that our country is failing to harness its rich natural resources properly for the benefit of the Filipino consumers.