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Energy source on nature’s whim

Sorting out RE’s handicaps

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By Myrna M. Velasco

Unequivocally, renewable energy (RE) and other clean energy technologies are flourishing energy sources that are going mainstream – not just capturing the hearts of climate change risk-averse project developers, corporate shareholders and advocates, but also the attention of woke consumers who have deep convictions to care not just for environment’s health but for the welfare of the future generation.

For those in the business sector in general – and the energy sector in particular – this has been bringing pressure to shift away from fossil fuels into ‘green energy’ technologies.

In the case of the Philippines, there are conflicting paradigms that have been provoking intensified debates – on whether this country which is recurrently slumping into power supply crisis situations could really get out from that conundrum and will join the world’s low carbon investments pathway?

And for energy sources perceived to be generally dependent on nature’s whim, instead of human’s demand for power as needed – because no one can accurately predict really when the sun shines and when the wind blows — how can the perfect-fit solutions and innovations be sorted out without the usual distress that these might be coming at higher costs?

A call to action to reverse climate change

Federico R. Lopez, chairman of energy firm First Gen Corporation as well as the Lopez group’s First Philippine Holdings Corporation, has been going great guns to become the conscience of business as well as the voice of reason in the mystifying journey of lowering the energy sector’s carbon emissions.

In his call to co-corporates as well as financial institutions and banks for urgent action, Lopez highlighted this diegesis (not a plot in a movie but a real life scenario for the world): “many of the permafrost areas (like the Antarctic) known to have melted only inches a year are now subject to ‘abrupt thaws’ as rapid as 10 feet in days or weeks,” with him stressing “the fact that we are a coastal dwelling and archipelagic nation, the warming Antarctic should worry us even more.”

The Lopez group of companies – which has been leaning generally on clean technologies on its energy investments and even on usage – has a ‘close to home’ reference when it comes to the actual peril of natural disasters – as its geothermal power plants in Leyte had been literally at the ‘eye of the storm’ when death-dealing super typhoon ‘Yolanda’ (known internationally as ‘Haiyan’) monstrously walloped the country in November 2013. Other than geothermal, First Gen and its subsidiaries’ investments (including that of Energy Development Corporation) are all on the RE and clean tech genres: natural gas (of which carbon emissions are still way lower than coal and diesel or bunker-C fuels); hydro, wind, and solar facilities.

“Every decision we make must consider the betterment of all stakeholders. It no longer works the other way around if you consider shareholders the priority. I believe enlightened shareholders also realize that there are no jobs, profits or even remnants of shareholder value on a dead planet,” Lopez enthused.

Convinced that the energy sector and the Philippine economy in general can still track a pathway that will decouple viable economic aspirations against escalating carbon footprints, Lopez said “it’s high time we rethink, reimagine, redesign and rebuild how our world works. It’s a paradigm shift like the world has never seen before.”

The measure of sustainability and a shift to low carbon world, according to Lopez, cuts across array of business ethos and lifestyle changes, such as: how we get our energy; the design of our cities, buildings and homes; the materials we use; what we eat and how we grow our food; how we handle our waste; how we use and recycle water; our transport systems and what powers them; as well as words like regenerative agriculture, permaculture, the circular economy, cradle to cradle and net positive buildings must become the new normal.

Electricity in a box

To be fair, there is a desire for many players in the energy sector to really take investment shifts, but there are gigantic hurdles confronting them – including the intermittency of renewables like solar and wind; the feedstock sustainability concern for biomass facilities; the deteriorating resource that could be extracted from reservoirs for geothermal; or the ‘social dislocation’ and cyclical generation that hydro facilities render.

At any rate in the hydro sector, pumped storage is already gaining traction as a “winning technology”, hence, its deployment in the Philippines has also been generating a lot of interest.

Experts opine that pumped storage hydroelectricity will typically be a good match for what are seen as generally large gaps in wind generation – especially at this time when utility scale battery energy storage (BES) technologies, or what are deemed “electricity in a box” are still not considered commercially viable.

Lopez, for his part, has also pitched that while “large battery systems remain uneconomical in solving the intermittency of RE plants, First Gen’s natural gas-fired power plants will remain ‘the best alternative’ because of their fast ramp-up capability.”

He acknowledged though that gas plants are still fossil fuels with greenhouse gas emissions, so the future investment course that the Lopez group has been building on will be the eventual phase down, and further down could be a phase-out “as soon as the renewables-batteries combinations become economically feasible.”

Lopez cited that one possibility could also be for its gas plants “to be powered by much cleaner hydrogen in the future when and if this becomes possible.”

To date, the discourse around the next wave of RE investments is still on concerns of their on-and-off generation; and how the proposed ‘green energy tariff” could viably underpin the country’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (or the requirement for distribution utilities to source prescribed percentage of their supply from RE capacities at a rate that will be growing incrementally on a yearly basis) – so all Filipinos will in time champion the desire to turn this country into a ‘mecca’ of green energy.

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