Charting the Philippine energy transition

This article was originally published in GMA News Online

The PowerTrends international energy conference was first organized by the Department of Energy back in 1995, but the opening of its eleventh run last week indicates the country has yet to solve the myriad problems blocking its transition to a sustainably powered economy.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the energy committee, was invited to deliver the keynote speech on the Senate’s energy agenda. Many likely hoped the senator would lend insights on the focus of the accompanying exhibit of the 2016 conference—off-grid electrification. Unfortunately, after Gatchalian shared his broad views on stable, sustainable, and affordable energy, the rest of his speech was spent awkwardly making the case for nuclear power.

“My cautious stance on the [Bataan Nuclear Power Plant] should not be viewed as a blanket opposition to the prospects of adding nuclear power to the Philippine energy mix,” the neophyte senator said, even as he recognized the legions of risks associated with nuclear energy.

The senator’s remarks were out of touch with the rest of the conference’s speakers and reactors. Most experts discussed not just the unmistakable global momentum towards renewables but also how the country can actually make the energy transition happen sooner.

Atty. Jose Layug Jr., University of the Philippines law professor and interim chairperson of the National Renewable Energy Board, recapped the vast potential of renewable energy sources in the Philippines and contrasted it with the country’s dismal output of fossil fuels.

“We don’t produce much [oil, gas, and coal]. Therefore, by default, we should be considering the resource that we have the most, and that is renewable energy.”

Michael Hasper, the German embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires, said his country was phasing out nuclear and focusing on renewables not only because of security risks and nuclear waste.

“We know from our own energy transition back home how difficult the shift towards renewables can be, especially in the beginning. But… on a long-term view, renewable energy is the only way to ensure a reliable and affordable energy supply and to protect the world’s climate at the same time,” he said.

However, while nuclear still remains a pipe dream, coal continues to threaten not only the climate but our energy security. The share of coal in our energy mix is expected to rise from 6,666 megawatts (MW) this year to 11,181 MW by 2019, as pointed out by Vincent Perez, chair of the energy advisory firm Merritt Partners and former Department of Energy secretary.

Jefferson Edwards, general manager of Shell International’s global gas and LNG market development, said that, based on the country’s current trajectory, Philippine carbon emissions will double by 2025 compared to 2014, and the Philippines would have the largest share of coal-fired power generation in Asia.

“I think the challenge for the Philippines is really trying to maintain the [energy mix] balance,” said Edwards, “and right now, certain energy policies are leading to a growing imbalance and taking the Philippines from where it is today, which is a fairly positive place in terms of total emissions, to rising emissions.”

Dr. Christoph Menke, a German energy expert, said the global transition to renewable energy is coming faster than expected, and that the only question now is how smoothly the Philippines can manage its energy transition.

“Many renewable energy system costs have come down to the same level as conventional power system costs. (Solar) photovoltaic power will be the cheapest power source and it will challenge grids, utilities and conventional power producers,” he said.

Menke explained the lowered costs have already triggered major changes of the entire power system characterized by flexibility, decentralized structures, and a wide variety of actors.

“Prepare for flexibility, which is diversification and looking at different options. And do not over-invest in baseload power…. Non-flexible baseload will result in stranded assets and social costs as we have seen in the Philippines,” Menke said in response to recurring arguments insisting on building more coal-based power.

Several other key issues were raised in the conference, including the need to fast-track the process of putting up new renewable energy plants, and the need to review energy policies, including incentives such as the feed-in tariff, to reduce the burden on ordinary citizens.

These issues were likewise raised in the Senate energy committee hearing just before the PowerTrends event opened. While this is welcome, it is also clear charting the Philippine energy transition will require the full participation not just of Congress but also the entire government.

The Duterte administration has to reverse six years of conventional, discredited thinking that plagued the Aquino administration’s approach to energy. It needs to take full charge of the ongoing review of our energy policy and to stamp the process with requisite high ambition.

More than this, it has to commit to do the work of developing a long-term plan for energy transition – one that will provide truly stable, sustainable, and affordable sources of energy, as well as the means for these to be accessed by all. As the experts have stated, this plan must clearly phase out fossil fuels and bank on decentralized renewable energy systems.

Denise M. Fontanilla is the energy policy advocacy consultant of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, a policy group promoting low-carbon development initiatives in vulnerable countries.