The Philippines’ energy secretary has brought power back to many typhoon-affected areas, but his job is far from done.
By Sacha Passi Illustration by Victor Blanco
When energy secretary Jericho Petilla promised to light up 320 towns devastated by typhoon Haiyan by last Christmas, and swore he would resign if he didn’t, he was making a political promise rarely seen in the Philippines.
“It is unusual for a member of the cabinet to do what he did, which is to stake his post on a performance deadline,” said Antonio Tinio, member of the Philippine Congress and representative of the ACT Teachers Party-List. “It was a dramatic gesture made under pressure in the immediate aftermath of typhoon Haiyan. It most likely served the purpose of giving him more motivation as well as leverage to get things done.”
Despite the best efforts of Petilla, which saw 317 towns back on the grid by the self-imposed December 24 deadline, the former governor of Leyte announced his resignation on December 25. “I will have no word of honour if I stay on and, in public service, word of honour is extremely important,” Petilla wrote to the press within hours of the deadline expiring.
President Benigno Aquino, however, rejected Petilla’s resignation, instead praising the energy secretary’s efforts, which far surpassed original estimates of three to six months to re-energise all typhoon-devastated town centres.
While Petilla’s willingness to leave his post for his perceived failure may be a mark of integrity, Aquino’s mercy may prove a double-edged sword for the politician, known for his eloquence and practical approach to his duties as a government official.
Reconnecting Leyte and Eastern Samar could prove a relatively straightforward task compared to what lays ahead for Petilla, who took over the helm of the Department of Energy in October 2012, with increasing concern that electricity demand in the growing economy will outstrip supply within the next 12 to 24 months.
In December last year, Manila Electric Co (Meralco), the country’s largest power distributor, hit customers with a record increase of $0.09 per kilowatt-hour of power consumption, firmly placing the Philippines among the highest electricity rates in Southeast Asia.
The High Court has since prevented Meralco from collecting the December generation charge and instead ordered the power distributor to temporarily keep the charge at P5.67 ($0.13) per kwh, but a wider solution for supply and demand still remains moot.
“Without diminishing the importance of restoring power to the typhoon-devastated areas, the unprecedented Meralco rate increase is definitely a major black eye on the Aquino administration,” said Tinio.
Such prohibitive rates have not only hurt ordinary consumers, but also serve as strong disincentives against manufacturing investments in a country marked as one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
“The rate increase is merely symptomatic of the underlying problem, which is inadequate generating capacity, particularly for Luzon,” said Tinio. “While the task of regulating power rates falls directly on the Energy Regulatory Commission and not the energy secretary, it can be asked whether Petilla did enough to mitigate the rate hike with the recent unscheduled shutdown of multiple power plants.”
Petilla’s main responsibility now is to secure enough new investment in power production to keep up with the requirements of the Philippines’ economic development.
What happens next will certainly test his determination. If he is to maintain the persona of a man of righteousness, there may come a time when he will have to assert himself against powerful interests that run deep in the
Philippines’ independent energy sector.
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