Wanted: Fast and Reliable Internet Connection

The Enhanced Community Quarantine or ECQ forced us all to stay indoors. As with the many Filipinos, I stayed inside and worked at home. But work from home means having a slow and unreliable internet connection.

According to Speedtest Global Index, as of February 2020, the Philippines’ mobile, download speed average is 16.66 while upload speed is 6.47 Megabits per second (Mbps). On the other hand, fixed broadband average download speed is31.48 Mbps and upload of 31.42 Mbps.

An internet speed test I did, however, show that my home internet’s download speed was at 1.59 Mbps while upload speed is 11.17 Mbps. I am subscribed and am paying for a plan that’s supposedly up to “100 Mbps”, considered my fast internet that can handle multiple activities online.

Yes, one can argue that with everyone at home there’s heavy usage of the internet. But really, my internet service provider (ISP) seems to be robbing me with my 1.59 and 11. 17 Mbps. My ISP says my subscription is up to 100 Mbps but really, my download speed is just 1.5 percent of what I’m subscribed to. The service I received is even way below than the Philippines’ average. This kind of service is just really absurd.

Clearly, and as everyone knows, we need better internet speed and reliable connection, requiring more investments in IT infrastructure. This isn’t because I simply want to stream in Ultra High Definition for my Netflix, Hulu or Apple TV. We need to invest in our IT infrastructure because our modern world depends on reliable interconnectivity.

In the Energy Sector, high speed and dependable internet is a prerequisite for modernizing the grid.

The Internet of Things or IoT is a game-changer and the internet is the backbone of IoT. Technological advancement has given birth to distributed energy systems, which foregoes the traditional distribution energy of centralized generation and transmission with really long high-powered lines delivering power. Rather, we now have a combined generator and distributor in small and even remote communities.

IoT is needed to empower consumers. There are more choices for everyone if we can leverage on what technology has to offer, allowing even a homemaker to be a generator and distributor at the same time. Imagine a homeowner with solar power or even wind turbines generating excess capacity that can be sold to neighbors.

Speaking of distributed energy, thanks to the internet, grid managers will have visibility over grid functions and performance remotely. Distributions lines and substations are equipped with sensors that can provide real-time data on power consumption helping grid managers make decisions remotely. Even when away from their substations, grid managers can decide real-time on network configuration, load switching, and voltage control, among others.

The Internet allows for virtual troubleshooting, too. We can expect fewer linemen risking their lives trying to fix broken power connections and consumers waiting for days or weeks to get their power back that after a devastating natural disaster.

As for consumers, they now have more information in their hands. With smart devices and meters, they can now know their power consumption and adjust their consumption patterns accordingly. Smart technologies allow them to choose and eventually limit the use power-hungry appliances. Likewise, they can strategize their consumption if they are likely to go over the budget with their power consumption. This is because IoT’s low-powered sensors and internet-connected devices allow for the collection and transmission of data to users quickly.

The case of Chattanooga City in Tennessee illustrates how crucial fast internet is in the modernization of grids and improvement of the community’s economy. In 2008, Chattanooga City rolled out a fiber-optic network that could provide speeds of up to 1000 Mbps. This despite the huge capital needed to install and maintain fiber networks which required new underground wiring and linking to individual homes.

Chatt gridsmart

Chattanooga City is reaping huge benefits from investments in fiber optics and smart grids. Photo c/o http://www.smartgrids.com

Chattanooga’s project was started as the small city wanted to build a “smart” power grid that’s capable of rerouting or switching electricity easily to prevent outages.

The city government opted to operate a city-owned agency, the Electric Power Board (EPB) that would run its own network offering higher-speed service than any private sector players can provide. Naturally, large businesses incapable of providing better service tried to prevent the entry of a new player that would change the competitive landscape. The city government faced lawsuits from US telecom giant, Comcast and local cable operators who tried to block the entry of EPB. But by September 2009, the internet service was already in operation.

A $111 million stimulus grant given to the city by the US Department of Energy saw the completion of the project. EPB managed to roll out its smart grid rapidly. The organization intended to complete the smart grid deployment in 10 years, but only needed three years. “Deploying a network for telecommunications is not fundamentally different from deploying a network for power,” Benoit Felten, a broadband expert with Diffraction Analysis said. “Chattanooga is the prime example of that, and it’s absolutely worked.”

These days, the EPB offers electric, cable, internet and telephone service to the majority of the Hamilton County in Tennessee and eight nearby counties in East Tennessee and Georgia. It manages 3560 miles of transmission line and serves around 178,000 residential and business customers.

Reports say that Chattanooga City is reaping huge benefits from EPB’s investments in fiber optics and smart grids. EPB is credited for being the most influential in Chattanooga’s astonishing economic transformation

The city’s smart grids have helped reduce power outages and incidents in half. This translates to 285 million customer minutes, which means EPB’ customers get to save around $50 million yearly in spoiled food, lower productivity, and other negative impacts.

Chattanooga City’s example shows that there are many benefits to be enjoyed if one invests in a smart grid. The best way to start modernizing the grid is to address the lack of high speed and reliable internet. This is why we need to have better internet services in the country. We need to invest in our internet infrastructure not because we need to stream our entertainment content in Ultra High Definition. But rather because, the Energy Sector needs reliable internet to provide more choices and better services to Filipinos.

Rolling Out New Programs May Not Be Necessary

It is no secret that the Philippines is heavily dependent on coal for its energy needs.

Data from the Department of Energy show that coal’s share in our country’s energy mix was 35.4% in 2017 up from 34.6% in 2016.  On the other hand, renewable energy contracted last 2018, only contributing 31.1% of the total, down from 32.5% in 2017.

Indeed, the Philippines is declining in terms of renewable energy development.

This is why it’s heartwarming to hear President Rodrigo Duterte address this issue in the last State of the Nation Address (SONA) where he ordered to fast-track the development of renewable energy resources. His exacts words were: “We recognize the urgent need to ensure the sustainability and availability of resources and the development of alternative ones. In this regard, I trust that Secretary Cusi shall fast-track also the development of renewable energy sources, and reduce dependence on the traditional energy sources such as coal.”

Naturally, the Department of Energy (DOE) responded to such call. In a statement, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said that “The DOE is encouraged by the President’s comments. Indeed, his leadership will be pivotal for the DOE to implement policies and regulations that ensure the affordability, reliability, security, and sustainability of energy in the Philippines for generations to come.” 

The secretary promised to fast-track the implementation of the key renewable energy policies, namely the Renewable Portfolio Standard and the Green Energy Option. The former mandates distribution utilities to source a percentage of their power from renewable sources. The latter, on the other hand, empowers consumers to demand that their power comes from renewable sources.

The Energy secretary also said that it is looking at implementing a Green Energy Rate that will help the country to build a renewable energy portfolio of 2,000 megawatts in 10 years. There would be a ceiling rate and a green tariff rate would be auctioned among investors and developers.

Green tariffs and Green Energy Options are nothing new.  Other countries already have these programs, although the Green Tariff in other countries seems to be quite different from the one being planned by the DOE.

For example, in the United States, utility green tariff is optional programs in regulated electricity markets that are offered by utilities and by the state public utility commissions. The program lets industrial customers and large commercial clients purchase bundled renewable energy power with a special utility tariff rate.  It allows utilities to supply large industrial and commercial clients with up to 100 percent renewable power that’s either owned by the utility or sourced from another independent power producer. I’m not sure if this is the model the DOE and National Renewable Energy Board (NREB) are looking at. 

In the United Kingdom (UK), the green tariff is also available and works quite differently.  It is offered to those who want to lessen their carbon footprint with their power consumption by allowing customers to give back the same amount of power consumed back to the national grid in the form of renewable energy. Green tariff can also work by supplying the customer with either 100 percent RE or a portion of.

Clearly, Green tariffs are in place in other countries to help their RE sector prosper as well as to provide customers with cleaner option.

However, in the Philippines, rolling out new programs may not be the most urgent concern if we want our renewable energy sector to flourish. What our regulators must pay attention to are the current programs that hinder the growth of the sector. There is the Competitive Selection Process  (CSP) as it places renewable energy developers at a disadvantage and the Retail Competition and Open Access (RCOA) that fails to help local renewable energy development.

Let’s take a look at the CSP mandating energy demand must first be aggregated then later bid out by a third party. This means that the power capacity becomes large before it can be auctioned off. It is then the large quantity required by the bid that places renewable energy suppliers at a disadvantage. We have to keep in mind that most RE plants have small capacities.  Unfortunately, those with smaller capacities RE plants will be left out in the cold as a result of aggregating the power requirement before the auction.

So, will the planned Green Energy Tariff by the DOE no longer require undergoing the CSP? I am personally curious about the mechanics of this planned program intended to help develop renewable energy in the Philippines. 

Our government should indeed work harder to make renewable energy development a priority. After all, going for sustainable and green energy helps in bringing down our power rates. Renewable power will also provide us with energy security.

As I have been saying, renewable energy, unlike traditional sources of energy are not vulnerable to foreign exchange and world price fuel prices. This means consumers are spared from the consequences of ‘floating contracts’ where Filipinos pay for higher power prices when the peso falls against the dollar or when coal or oil prices in the world market spikes.

Developing renewable power bodes well for us. Traditional sources, particularly oil and coal are finite sources. What then happens when these power sources are low in supply or worse are already unavailable?

There’s also the RCOA that’s also meant to help the sector by allowing a number of customers to source their preferred service provider.  Unfortunately, only those with  750 kilowatts or higher monthly demand can be considered contestable customers, thus restricting the number of consumers that has the option of choosing their power source.

So, yes we can look at other programs to help the RE sector prosper. Unfortunately, DOE has a track record of showing its lack of appreciation on the many benefits of renewable power for the Filipino consumers. 

We have to keep in mind that sometimes new programs, entities or rules can wait. They may not even be necessary. All we have to do is to simply review current regulations and practices rather than find new ones. And if we as a nation want to heed the orders of the President to develop cleaner and sustainable sources of power, then we urgently need to review our current regulations. 

References:

https://www.epa.gov/greenpower/utility-green-tariffs

https://www.comparethemarket.com/energy/information/energy-tariffs-explained/

Coal plants’ share in 2017 energy mix expands to over 35%