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Moratorium on coal-fired plants

/ 08:16 AM June 30, 2011

As expected, last Monday’s inaugural rites of the 200-MW coal-fired power plant in Naga, Cebu, led by no less than President Benigno S. Aquino III was a media event. P-Noy was in the front pages and everything that he said during the inaugural switch-on was amply covered, including his kilig comments about the Korean lady emcee. The $425-million power facility, a joint project of the Korean Power Electric Corp.-Salcon Power Corp., is expected to supply over 11 percent of the requirements of the Visayas grid and improve the power situation of Cebu, Panay and Negros. The attendance of the President made the occasion more significant.

However, the presence of P-Noy in the event did not sit well with environmental activists. They were actually puzzled because he had just launched the National Renewable Energy Program. The NREP is a government initiative in harmony with programs taken up by many countries around the world to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The effects of fossil fuel on global warming, not to mention its volatile pricing and supply that co-mingle with political issues in countries that produce fuel oil impact on human survival. Because coal is “generally the dirtiest fuel on earth,” according to the International Herald Tribune, many are asking if P-Noy has a consistent energy policy.

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Somebody also asked if the President bothered to consult with his political allies here before accepting the Kepco-SPC invitation because there’s a pending case against the consortium.

Apparently, P-Noy came prepared for the local issues and delivered a straightforward message to environmental advocates. The problem of coal ash is solvable, and Kepco-Salcon has made steps to mitigate this problem. The prospect of rotating brownouts, if not dealt with now, can be disastrous, he said.

President Aquino practically took up the cudgels for Kepco-SPC. “The power plant we inaugurate today complies with the Clean Air Act and is very friendly to the environment,” he said in his speech. The President stressed that alternative energy sources such as the programs spelled out in NREP provide the answer, but because these will take years to realize, the country has no choice but to take the coal route.

In effect, the administration’s energy policy integrates coal, for practical reasons, because it is cheaper and ensures energy security.

The Philippines is not the only country in the world that has been forced to adopt coal energy. There is strong demand for coal in China, India and even Europe which, in past decades discarded the fuel in favor of nuclear energy. The high costs of natural gas and oil have worn down these developed countries. They are apprehensive too that supply of fossil fuel is depleting. Likewise, there is an aversion for nuclear power after the Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Japan nuclear disasters. Indeed, despite environmental risks, these factors increased considerations for coal.

Strangely, even with advances in science and technology, savants have not yet discovered a tool or knowledge to eliminate or alleviate the risks of carbon dioxide and sulfur emissions in generating coal fuel. The idea is to capture and store toxic substances but the technology is not commercially available.

The United States came up with the “biggest carbon-capture demonstration project,” at a coal-fired plant in Illinois sometime in 2008, but it was cancelled due to huge cost overruns. According to the International Herald Tribune, the cost of the project was pegged at $950 million in 2003, but had spiraled to $1.5 billion five years later. I’m not sure if the project was sustained, but because it was described by experts as similar to a “moon landing,” we can only surmise that it was big booboo.

I will not dispute the fact that coal fuel answers Cebu’s rising demand for efficient energy. Investments are pouring in and Cebu cannot sustain the momentum of economic growth minus sufficient and dependable energy supply.

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However, the government cannot support NREP programs and expect it to bear fruit, while sustaining initiatives that defeat its purpose. This is not coherent policy.

There should be a moratorium on coal-fired power plants.

The issue of cost, availability and energy security do not absolve the government and our generation from the bigger responsibility of conserving the environment. We all have a duty to protect our planet in order for the next generation to survive.

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