Double Threat: The Ukraine-Russia Crisis

Aside from inflation, the main impact of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is energy supply destabilisation. Photo c/o http://www.eenews.net

For the Philippines, it’s not just oil prices we have to worry about. Prices of energy including natural gas, oil, and coal soared as tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated. Wood Mackenzie, a global natural resources consultancy noted that “The Russia-Ukraine crisis has shocked the coal and the broader energy markets.”

Thermal coal prices are at a record high. Nikkei reports that the benchmark Newcastle coal price has more than doubled before Russia’s assault on Ukraine, and even rose by 46 percent in a single day last March 2.

Russia, after all, is a major producer of coal, providing 15 percent of global exports. The country is also the number two coal supplier to Japan, China, and South Korea. Analysts believe that these three coal importing countries may now turn to Saudi Arabia, Australia, and Indonesia for their coal exports.

Aside from inflation, the main impact of this war is energy supply destabilization. Let us consider that in 2020, coal accounted for 57.2 percent of the Philippines’ energy mix, importing the majority of its needs from Indonesia. But as more coal exporting countries turn to Australia and Indonesia, we can expect global coal export prices to be more expensive.

It also doesn’t’ help that heightened concerns over geopolitical tensions, national elections, and the US Federal Reserve’s tightening are likely to result in the Philippines peso depreciation. ANZ Research noted that the peso is in for a volatile ride in the coming months with the peso trading with the US dollar at an exchange rate at Php 54 to a dollar.  

“Our current yearend forecast for the peso is 52.50, which is weaker than consensus estimates. Given the mounting downside pressure from the large external deficit, we see further downside risk to our forecast. A repeat of the 2018 period when the peso depreciated toward 54.40 is a possibility,” ANZ Research noted.

What do these two developments mean for us in terms of energy security?

Geopolitical tensions are likely to increase global coal prices. And since the Philippines exports most of its coal, and as the peso depreciates, then we will be importing coal at a much higher price.

Sadly, it will be Juan dela Cruz who will bear the brunt of higher power rates. Remember that the majority of our power sales agreements (PSAs) have pass on-cost provisions, which means consumers bear the cost of the falling peso against the dollar and the global coal price increases. What makes it worse is that most independent power producers have most of their billings in the US dollar denomination.

Plus, off-grid areas relying on diesel generators will definitely have to pay more for their power in the coming weeks as oil prices continue to rise.

It seems like we are doomed in the near future. But we always knew that our energy security has always been under threat. Recently, it was the temporary ban of Indonesia on coal exports that we were worried about. Now, we have the Ukraine and Russia war and the peso depreciation that threatens our energy security.

We must, once and for all, take aggressive steps in ending our dependence on coal exports. We should have done it many years ago, but we didn’t. Despite a moratorium on new coal plants, the PH energy system will still be relying on coal-fired plants. 

Data shows that coal will account for 46.68% or  3,685.4 megawatts (MW) of the f 7,9190.96 MW of new capacity to be added by 2027. In contrast, only 901.27 MW of Renewable Energy will be added. We are supposed to source 35% of our power from RE by 2030 but as of 2020, renewables only accounted for 21 percent of the energy mix. These figures surely speak to the fact that we are failing to develop our renewable energy sources.

Recently, President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the revival of nuclear power to help replace coal plants. Executive Order No 164 says that adding nuclear power into the state’s energy mix for power generation can help ensure energy security. The EO further described nuclear power as a “viable alternative source” of baseload power that can replace coal-fired power plants.

The EO also mandates the Nuclear Energy Program Inter-Agency Committee to study further the possible use of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plan. I have discussed the use of nuclear energy and the re-opening of the BNPP in a previous post. In my opinion, this option has been studied to death. 

During my time as CEO of the National Power Corporation, our proposal was to put up a new one right next to the present one if the country wanted to have a nuclear power plant. The security system of the BNPP was close to a quarter of a century old then. By now, the security system is half a century old.  To revive nuclear power, we need to craft new legislative and regulatory frameworks as the ones we have are updated. Plus, we don’t have the expertise unless we take the offer of Russia of help in building nuclear power offered years back?

While our national government is in the right direction in trying to diversify energy sources, however, our best bet has always been renewable energy sources. Geothermal, which can act as baseload plants, is a better option than nuclear except that the government or regulation has made geothermal energy development less attractive to investors.

The key to energy security– which the International Energy Agency (IEA) defined as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price– has always been renewable sources. The Philippines, after all, is blessed with natural resources that can be harnessed to ensure a consistent power supply at reasonable prices.  

Further, as I said in an earlier blog, Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) and microgrids should be the path we need to take. With DERs, we won’t be reliant on these old coal power plants and won’t have to worry about high energy prices when global coal prices spike. Energy security for the Philippines can be achieved by utilizing renewables, DERs, and microgrids. We should have invested in these a long time ago. 

But we insist on the impractical such as relying on imported coal, reopening of BNPP, and investing in floating nuclear plants. We seem to have forgotten that we are one of the top producers of geothermal power in the world and that we are a tropical country. We also have the expertise and laws in place to develop renewable energy sources. 

The current tension between Ukraine and Russia should be our final warning.  I say final as we should have learned our lessons from previous events and catastrophes like the temporary ban on coal exports by Indonesia.  Let us not waste time anymore and take renewable energy, microgrids and DER development seriously.