Cusi should be digging for roots of power inadequacy problem

After assigning a 100-day task team to look into existing service contracts and ways of lowering electric bills, Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Alfonso Cusi has now embarked on a new audit of the generation, transmission and distribution facilities involved during the recent Luzon rotating blackouts. He has tapped the assistance of the Institute of Integrated Electrical Engineers (IIEE) of the Philippines for his newly formed task force.

Are we back again into solving symptoms that the DOE has been doing for such a long time? 

In my previous article on resource inadequacy (READ: Challenge to new energy chief: Regroup with different level of thinking), I enumerated basic issues that have to be clearly understood and resolved before diving into his 100-day task. We don’t even know what has been done on these issues yet and here we are with Cusi blaming the May elections for the rotating blackouts.

Cusi, in defense of DOE’s failed policies, said that several power plants had tripped with other plants on scheduled maintenance outages. And we’re supposed to accept that excuse for resource inadequacy? Sounds familiar? Is this another Malampaya scheme?

With or without the increased demands during the elections, several existing problems have been left unresolved. After blackouts and brownouts, we usually get the same old treatment. The DOE kept telling us to take two aspirins and don’t call them in the morning.

With the assistance from the IIEE, will DOE continue to treat the symptoms?

First step

In looking into power resource adequacy, it’s just common sense to first verify the validity of the list of resources and the operational condition of each resource involved.

The first step is to get rid of the general list of installed power plants they’ve been publishing for ages. With a two-season climate, the net dry-season generating capacity is the more stringent for satisfying the highest peak power demands. The net dry-season capacity list should be the basis for power adequacy calculations. The net wet-season capacity list can be used for information and to re-program operations of the hydros based on abundant water.

The net dry-season capacity list must also be updated with appropriate de-ratings from the nameplate or rated capacities in addition to internal (house) load, based on verified equipment limitations. Baseload backup power must be provided for intermittent renewable plants on the grid, based on past experience. The net generating capacity must reflect the true reliable and 24/7 available power to the consumers.

Resource adequacy must always consider operational generating capacities no less than 115% of the peak demand, to ensure 24/7 system reliability. Sufficient reserve margins must exist in the event of unexpected problems or the probability of loss of large generating plants.

During the recent blackouts, the loss of five large plants could have been prevented using past maintenance records, performance tests and availability runs. Based on the health of the operating units, adjustments should have been made in the first place, in the outage schedule. For instance, limping plants should not be allowed on the grid providing a false sense of security. Some are unable to follow load without tripping because boilers not designed for cycling, cannot handle excessive tube and piping stresses.

The 350 MW Malaya 2 intake traveling screen problem was completely preventable. The 300 MW Calaca 2 and the 382 MW Pagbilao 2 tube leaks should have been predictable based on history and monitoring. The 325 MW GNP and the 647MW Sual 2 hydrogen leaks were maintenance failures. So a total of 2,004 MW generating capacity was lost due to O&M (operations and maintenance) problems but the costly replacement power was placed on the shoulders of the consumers.

But if you think about this for a second, the replacement power being available from the grid at WESM-hiked prices, means there was no physical but rather a “Malampaya-type” inadequacy. A repeated proof of DOE failed policy that has to end to protect the consumers against providers’ planned or unplanned mistakes.

POWER PROBLEM. File photo of Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi. Getty Images

POWER PROBLEM. File photo of Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi.

Getty Images

DOE has been claiming more than enough reserve capacity margins in Luzon for quite some time based on the old capacity list, until these rotating blackout events came about. Ironically, the quick blame on lack of reserve capacity has been their most reliable fallback position when confronted by the consumers. But are the consumers responsible for ERC’s failure to monitor the presence of adequate reserves?

It’s about time

Consumers have been in dire need of more competency and less corruption from the DOE. There’s no better time than today to make it happen. President Duterte must direct the DOE Secretary to fix this. If it takes a complete overhaul of the DOE-ERC team, then so be it. He must bring technically competent people to bear.

Develop the net dry-season and wet-season capacity lists updated periodically and on “as needed” basis. Baseline performance tests must be conducted with the ERC for all plants. A mandated quarterly reporting to the ERC must be provided, until less frequency can be demonstratively justified on a case by case basis.

This will weed out the ailing and inefficient plants and restore the trust of the consumers on the actual 24/7 reliable capacity. For the large and relatively new units, an online plant performance monitoring program must be added if not already included, as part of the plant’s control and system monitoring software. Unannounced visits by the ERC must be implemented to verify efficient operation of each plant.

Conduct a comprehensive operational evaluation of the operating plants to identify the following. This evaluation must be published for consumer information and monitoring:

Publish the DOE/power generators/NGCP-approved schedule for plant maintenance outages showing the adequately staggered outage durations to mitigate the consequences of forced outages of large plants during each season.

Introduce the following amendments to the EPIRA law to promote competitive pricing:

In addition to the IIEE, Secretary Cusi needs a group of mechanical engineers with extensive experience in the engineering, construction and operation of power plants, to be successful in pulling out the roots of the power inadequacy problem. –


Rolly Calalang holds a BSME from UP Diliman and a BSEE from FEU Manila. He has extensive experience in the power industry in the U.S. and China.