do you know the story of how we got electricity?

this week i am enrolled in a class on the power industry in UP. NEA’s competency and certification program officer Rio Garcia invited ed and me to take the course. ed had other previous engagements so i took the offer. yesterday was my first day and i met the professor, a UP engineer, wally del mundo. i found him very pleasant and asked ” Are you going to run the whole course?” “Yes, he smiled.”

it was quite a first day. i had not been in any UP class since i graduated in 1970. i told Ayen” Ayen i have to wake up early for my class in UP.” “What course are you taking Nanay?” Ayen was surprised. “Electricity” i replied.

the course outline was the first handout i got upon registration. it was a voluminous  powerpoint print out and the contents were all new to me.

“i hope there will be enough time to digest these topics.” i told rio garcia who was welcoming all the people from the electric cooperatives.  rio explained that the course was for board directors of electric coops but that she was inviting more people like me to understand the industry. the room was filled up by electric coop staff and board directors.  and there were more people coming. rio asked me to sit in front so that i can have a better seat where the aircon was modulated.

the first topic was about the electricity. a whole vocabulary, from voltage to amperes, from energy to power, to the various kinds of power generators. the topic reminded me of the book “Electric Universe” by david bodanis. wally made all the technical terms simple and easy on the mind. it was his steady and light storytelling style that got us focused for the whole day.

i noticed all the men and women were listening to wally while i twirled in my seat. i dont go for long lectures much less listen and read content from slides. i go for facilitating sessions for  a maximun of three hours by using a variety of modalities, from experiential learning to case studies. but the way wally presented EPIRA and the drama behind it, i found myself taking down notes and enjoying his vignettes and criticisms of the power players . i noticed very few people were leaving the room even when it was time to take our breaks.

so what did i learn the first day? that the law EPIRA was mainly a response to curb the excesses of  NPC and its monopoly that put us in deep debt. there had been a lot of criticisms against NPC as early as the 1980s. i only knew the great debts that NPC incurred. i  dont know what and how we generate, transmit and distribute our own electricity. i only knew Meralco since i was young. i didnt know the rest of the country was supplied by electric cooperatives.

the story of electricity in the country is a story that is part of our colonial history. it is also a story that dramatizes how our government and its industry players set the power agenda. it is also a story of why we need the electric cooperatives more than ever.

flashback a hundred years ago. wally narrated that the first three arc lamps in Manila were installed in 1890. La Electrisista lighted Manila in 1892 and by 1895, it had built the first power station in Manila. in 1903 the Americans got the franchise to supply electricity. it developed the first tranvia . Meralco was the first company running the tranvia and supplying electricity to the city. it was the private entity that brought electricity in the country.

the government came into the scene after 30 years when it established the National Power Corporation in 1936. then after another 30 years in 1936  NPC got the monopoly in power generation and transmission, and was  mandated to build the three main grids in Luzon,Visayas and Mindanao. the government did not give NPC funds but gave its valuable assets, the large bodies of water in the country. it owns most of the land surrounding the water bodies.  its first power station was built in Caliraya, a river and was transformed into a lake. the government empowered NPC to secure loans for its energy program. thus began its  story of being the richest company and incurring the largest liabilities for the nation.

the next blog will continue the story. in the meantime, i have to take dinner and review my notes. how did we become one of the most
expensive countries to invest in? by expensive, i mean the cost of electricity. we have a high cost of electricity when we have so much renewable/indigenous energy sources!

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2 Comments on “do you know the story of how we got electricity?”

  1. Rene "RC" Catacutan Says:

    Hi Girlie!

    I could think of at least 5 major reasons why the cost of our electricity is high:

    1) Reliance on fossil fuels to generate electricity. You’re right, we ought to exert more than enough effort to harness “green” technologies and indigenous sources of power to generate electricity. To do this, we may have to first hurdle the more-than-elementary arithmetic of the power equation: a) even the more prosperous countries, with all their advance technologies and mature economies, are having difficulty shifting to “greener” technologies; b) it is highly unlikely that existing power producers, out of compassion or altruistic reason, will junk or write off billions of investments in their existing power plants and “re-tool” these plants with “greener” technologies (this is basically the reason too why car manufacturers are dragging their feet in the mass production of “greener” cars); c) “green” technologies in power generation have yet to mature and achieve economy of scale; and d) politicians, policitians, politicians, damn!

    2) Excessive government taxation of petro products and the power industry. It does not take an Einstein to figure out that if you lower the taxes and duties levied by the government on petro products and electricity, you will, in effect:
    a) spur productivity and job creation, b) lower prices of basic commodities, c) put extra money on the family table of the poor (may mesa pa ba? iginatong na yata!), d) enhance consumer spendings (which benefits productivity and job creation),
    e) attract domestic and foreign investment in the productive sector, f) increase domestic savings; etc.

    The twin requirements of the job: political will and imaginative ways of recouping “lost” revenues elsewhere. Paging taxation geniuses in the executive and legislative branches of government!

    3) NAPOCOR and its high cost of generating electricity. (If you care to take a look at any of your Meralco bills, (power) generation should be anywhere from 35-50% of the total amount of your bill.)

    Saddled by crippling foreign loan servicing and inefficient power generating plants, NAPOCOR simply cannot produce cheaper electricity. This condition is worsen by the fact that, by law (EPIRA), NAPOCOR is obliged to buy all the electricity produced by the Independent Power Producers (IPPs), whether or not NAPOCOR needs it.

    What to do with NAPOCOR? Chop it into bite sizes and privatize each piece even at a loss. At its present form and condition, NAPOCOR is simply not attractive to potential buyers. More often, it is better to suffer a one time loss than endure endless bleeding of good money. Just get rid of this damn “pacman” of our national budget. Gusto pang buhayin Bataan Nuclear Power Plant ng mga kumag!

    4) Pass-on costs by Meralco. For some mysterious reasons, the government allows Meralco to pass on to its consumers the costs of its inefficiency and unusual business and accounting practices: theft/pilferages, system loss, foreign exchange loss, electric consumption of Meralco and its subsidiaries, cost of electric meter, pension fund, executive perks, etc. What makes Meralco so special and unique that it enjoys unearned incentives from the government and gets away with unusual business and accounting practices unheard of in other industries.

    The limp excuse of Meralco officials that we still enjoy cheaper electricity (based on cost per kWh) compared to our neighbor countries is, well, a no-brainer. The Japanese, Singaporeans, Taiwanese, Malaysians, South Koreans and Malaysians may be paying more for their electricity but, for crying out loud, they also make a lot, lot more than their Filipino counterparts.

    Let it not be said that, in this part of the world, we do not know how to reward inefficiency and mediocrity. Well, only in da Pilipayns.

    5) Meralco’s (damn again) monopoly of power distribution in Metro Manila and neighboring provinces. The sad reality in a monopoly situation is that your chances of engaging the services of competing service providers are “nil and zero.”

    Allowing the entry of competing service prooviders, as we did in the case of the telecom industry, will, at the very least, provide the consumers with freedom of choice. Competition, “when properly regulated by the government”, can improve quality of service and lower the cost of service.

    An interesting question that you may raise before the organizers and participants of the NEA-sponsored seminar-workshop is: “sre electric coops part of the solution or the problem of high cost of electricity?”

    The electric distribution in my home province of Nueva Ecija is serviced by 2 coops: the Nueva Ecija Electric Cooperative I (NECO I) and NECO II. Did you know that campaigns for the election of the Chairperson of the Board of each of these 2 coops rival in scope and magnitude (if not costs) those waged in any of the 4 congressional districts in the province? Mas malawak pa nga ang kinakampanyahan dahil 2 lang coop laban sa 4 na congressional districts sa buong probinsya samanta. How much are these board chairpersons and members making that their positions are hotly (and costly) contested? Is NEA effectively regulating (and developing) electric coops?

    Good luck and best regards to Ed and Ayamdiwata.


    • mvillariba Says:

      salamat RC sa mga sinulat at tanung mo. sang-ayon ako sa mag pagsusuri mo. pagnakita ko na yun professor ko si wali del mundo, sasabihin ko sa kanya ang elektrisidad ay isang larangan ng pakikibaka. tunay na ‘power to the people’ kung maging mahusay at affordable ang electric cost sa buhay natin.

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