by Carl Taawan and Sam Bautista | Nov 27, 2022
Published by Highland Tribune | READ THE STORY HERE
Benguet is one of the provinces in the Philippines with the most hydropower plants. With all of the dams in the provinces, you’d think that everyone should be happy and enjoying their day with cheaper electricity and all.
However, none of these power plants sell their electricity to the province. All of these plants are now privately owned, with the majority being registered to HEDCOR according to the latest list from the Department of Energy.
Water rights to the major rivers were also privately registered, which left many communities wondering how they were approved without consultation with the Indigenous Peoples. If there ever was, most don’t have any knowledge of it.
The province’s three major dams are producing 740 megawatts. The creation of the first two dams, however, left a bad memory, a history lesson well learned not only by iBenguets but by all Cordillerans in general.
Back in the late 1950s, the national government decided to build the first of three dams along the Agno River. The decade saw the construction of the 75-megawatt Ambuclao Hydroelectric Project. A decade later it set up the Binga Hydroelectric Dam. Binga had an installed capacity of 100 megawatts making these two the largest electric projects in Southeast Asia at the time.
But the Indigenous People weren’t the beneficiaries of these dams. “The original planning for Ambuklao calls for the restricted sale of its output to the Manila area, Baguio and the mines, and other large power consumers,” then President Ramon Magsaysay was quoted as saying, implying the prosperity of the country made more significant because of the electricity provided by the dams.
The bright picture Magsaysay painted was in stark contrast to the horrors which displaced Ambuklao and Binga residents had to endure for the gift of electricity. Families from these areas were herded together, told that their rice lands were to be flooded by the dams, and unilaterally transplanted to Palawan where they were told to pick up their lives on the meager compensation the government gave in exchange for their ancestral lands.
Those who survived malaria had to contend with unfamiliar climate conditions, a hostile native population, and unknown crops which were to replace their bountiful harvest of indigenous rice. To top it all, the government compensation was not enough for a new life. Not surprisingly, most of those displaced went back home to their relatives in Benguet without land and an uncertain future.
These stories influenced greatly the opposition to the government-planned Chico River Hydroelectric Project during the Martial Law years and were brought to its height by the martyrdom of tribal chief Macli-ing Dulag.
Stories of the hardships of these people still echo today in the entire Cordillera. Their experience is enough reason for iBenguets to be suspicious to any development initiative of the government or any private corporation, especially hydroelectric dams.
The creation of large hydropower plants in the province was an unsettling experience for the IPs. In spite of the lowest electricity charges of Benguet’s sole distributor, many of the residents believe that they should be getting more from their natural resources.
MINI HYDROPOWER PLANTS
Teeming with water resources, there are nine existing run-of-the-river power plants across Benguet registered under Hedcor. Four decades ago, the Hydroelectric Corporation (Hedcor) set up shop in Baguio City. Initially contracted to maintain and operate the city-owned Asin Hydroelectric Power Plant, Hedcor saw the potential of mini hydros in other parts of the country, especially in Benguet where water resources abound.
Hedcor is an Aboitiz Corporation-run company that is the sister and predecessor to the Davao Light and Power Company and the San Fernando (La Union) Light and Power Company. The renewable electric business proved to be so lucrative that Aboitiz decided to forego its shipping enterprise to concentrate on energy development and sales.
Unlike large hydroelectric endeavors, which require dams and the flooding of large areas, mini hydro projects use smaller impounding structures that do not dam rivers. This system diverts a fragment of a waterway through a weir. The rest is allowed to flow naturally. After the water is used to generate power, it is allowed to rejoin the waterway someway downstream.
QUEST FOR STABLE SUPPLY AND EQUITABLE BENEFIT
The most important factor in transitioning to renewable energy is sustainability. According to inspirecleanenergy.com, “renewable energy sources like wind energy, solar energy, and hydropower are sustainable forms of energy because they have a low environmental impact, are widely available, and are naturally replenished.”
According to Jephraim Manansala, Chief Data Scientist from the Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), Electric Cooperatives (EC) have now the option to build their own power generation facilities.
Manansala pointed out that Electric Cooperatives producing their own power plants are more profitable. “Having their own power plants, ECs are not constrained to private power generators and lessen the risk of high energy cost,” he said.
Another big reduction in the high price of electricity is transmission cost. Manansala said transmission is a big addition to the price of electricity paid by consumers.
Benguet still has a lot of potential untapped natural resources, and some municipalities are seeking partnerships with Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO), their own distributor. At least two municipal mayors wrote a letter intimating their desire to partner with Beneco to construct hydropower plants in their towns. They are hoping this will contribute to the energization of still-unenergized remote villages in these municipalities.
Run-of-the-river weir in Barangay Sebang, Buguias, Benguet.
The run-of-the-river hydroelectric power plant (HEPP) appears to be more popular among Benguet residents. Having accepted several Hydro-power plants that don’t sell at an affordable rate to their own distributor, Benguet officials are wishing for their own power plants that will provide them with security of power supply.
Councilor June Suni-en from the municipality of Bakun said partnering with the local electric cooperative seems to be the best way to go. He said the municipality of Bakun is seeking an actual partnership and is not just a receiver of a meager share from power producers. “The offer of BENECO with its project in Buguias is way better than our current agreement with another private power plant operating in our municipality,” he said.
BENECO’S RENEWABLE ENERGY DREAM
Benguet Electric Cooperative was able to secure a long-term contract with Team Energy, allowing the COOP to provide the lowest electricity rate in the country. For several years now, they have won the Ace of Tariffs award given to on-grid Electric Cooperatives with the lowest rate. But its long-term contract will soon end in 2024. With the continuously increasing price of coal, the province may soon have higher electricity rates from coal-based power plants like Team Energy.
Currently, BENECO is working to bid for a new supplier. The COOP is also working on a long-term solution to address the supply needs of Benguet.
What Beneco envisions is a renewable energy development project to supply its franchise area with affordable and renewable energy, and uplift the lives of the host communities at the same time.
For Beneco, finding solutions today to problems of the future is a consequence of its motto: “Quality Service Is Our Way of Life.” And looking to the future, then General Manager Gerardo Verzosa was looking for a way to further reduce the price of electricity for its consumers. He also was wary of the unstable price of coal, which is used in the country, particularly by Beneco’s contracted energy supplier, to generate affordable energy.
With Benguet now familiar with the run-of-the-river HEPP, BENECO proposed in 2007 to create its first Power Plant in Buguias. It was recently inaugurated and may soon become a template for future mini-hydro projects in Benguet. – Carl Taawan and Sam Bautista
(to be concluded next week)
(Editor’s Note: Reporting for this story was supported by the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC) under the Jaime Espina Klima Correspondents Fellowship)