You can’t fight a pandemic without reliable power

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

Reliable electricity is one aspect of our day-to-day that we often take for granted. And, until something happens to remind us just how necessary it is, we never seem to fully appreciate the fundamental role it plays in our daily lives.

Usually, this reminder comes as we approach the summer months of March, April, and May. It is generally during this time of year that the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines forecasts looming power shortages, and terms such as “yellow” and “red” alerts pop-up in the news, and tips on how to conserve energy show up on our social media feeds.

This year, however, is different.

Previous long-term power generation forecasts indicated possible shortages in the summer of 2021, but because of the lockdowns and the country’s ineffective COVID-19 response measures, entire industries, such as manufacturing plants and even malls, have had to either scale back or halt operations entirely. This, in turn, has reduced demand on the grid.

While the reduced risk of power shortages in the country might be considered the silver-lining of the country’s otherwise dire situation, the pandemic has caused other sorts of shifts as well. In particular, it has changed how we use electricity and increased the importance of reliable electricity, not only for our economy but also for our public health response.

Since the global pandemic crisis began early last year, the Philippines has been under lockdown — now the world’s longest, mind you. Nevertheless, over this time, our economy and society have still been able to function, with education, work, commerce, and social interaction still finding ways to continue. However, these activities, normally done physically on school campuses, in office buildings, malls, and restaurants, are now done digitally and remotely from our own homes. This shift has meant that our homes’ electric bills may have been slightly higher than what we were used to before the pandemic.

Also, with the Holy Week break now upon us and a vacation-less summer break just around the corner, we have no choice but to stay at home and perhaps crank-up the AC a bit longer than usual in an attempt to beat the summer heat. So, while factories and malls aren’t putting their typical demand on the grid, household consumption is definitely up compared to pre-pandemic figures. Best to keep an eye on the monthly electricity consumption chart in your electric bill to see how our consumption this summer compares to non-summer months and to adjust our expectations and behavior accordingly.

By powering our modern comforts, remote learning, working from home, and e-commerce, reliable electricity plays a crucial role in our economic and social well-being. At the same time, however, reliable electricity is also essential for effective COVID-19 responses. Ventilators, oxygen masks, and many diagnostic tests require electricity to work.

Furthermore, as vaccines slowly arrive and inoculation rolls out, an unbroken cold chain — an uninterrupted series of refrigerated production, storage, and distribution activities, along with associated equipment and logistics — is essential for keeping vaccines from spoiling during transportation.

Given the vital role that reliable electricity plays in maintaining this cold chain, the Department of Energy (DoE) recently issued a circular directing that private companies that make up the power sector to not only ensure a reliable and stable power supply but to also put in place contingency plans and emergency protocols in case of power shortages.

In the National Capital Region (NCR), where the most COVID-19 cases are concentrated, and inoculation rollout is critical, power distributor Meralco has implemented a network rehabilitation and upgrade program to ensure there is enough supply to meet projected demand and keep the cold chain and vaccination centers powered.

The country’s largest distributor, Meralco, set up a task force earlier this year to anticipate the vaccine rollout’s demands. The task force will inspect and monitor distribution facilities and substations to address potential causes of forced outages in vaccine storage facilities and vaccination centers. This month, Meralco is tracking 304 facilities, including 101 vaccine cold storage facilities and 203 vaccination centers. This includes MetroPac Movers, Inc.’s facilities, where over a million doses of Sinovac and AstraZeneca were delivered. The task force will closely watch healthcare facilities identified as vaccination centers, such as the Lung Center of the Philippines, the Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital, the Philippine General Hospital, Rizal Medical Center, the Philippine National Police General Hospital, and Pasay City General Hospital.

When the NCR was placed under the stricter quarantine ECQ again this week, Meralco also announced that its customers do not need to worry about service disconnections until April 15.

It may be an aspect of daily life that we often take for granted. Still, the pandemic has highlighted the integral role reliable electricity generation and distribution have in our economic and social well-being and our effective response against COVID-19.

Lastly, it is also worth pointing out that given the breadth of the pandemic response measures being implemented by energy sector stakeholders, on the one hand, and the government’s bungled COVID-19 response initiatives, on the other, I am glad the energy sector was privatized in the 1990s. Given its vital role in this era of COVID-19, there is no doubt that we would be in an even worse situation if maintaining a reliable supply of electricity was added to the government’s long list of to-dos.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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