TALKBACK THURSDAY| Let’s take back the power

NOTHING demonstrates our powerlessness in this country more than being without electricity for four to five hours a day (and even more in some areas). And the government just expects us to sit here in the dark, sweat profusely, and swallow their lame excuses.

Dear Daang Matuwid, electricity is a human right that affects our right to work, right to education, right to health, and right to life. And your failure to ensure that we have access to electricity is a violation of our human rights.

Electricity in this country is treated primarily as a business, not a basic public service. Although by the mere fact that you need a franchise to operate a business selling electricity, it means such is a privilege given by the state only to those who deserve it. And because electricity is a basic commodity that affects the public welfare significantly, the business of selling it must be strictly regulated by government.

Logically, if those in the business of selling electricity cannot deliver then their privileges must be revoked. So why are they still in business when they have consistently failed to deliver for many years now?

Countless of public hearings in the past have already concluded that there are clear indications of collusion among power generators in this country. It has been reported that since power generators are also players in the spot market, they tend to shut down in one area without justification only to sell to other areas where prices are higher. So it could be that we have no electricity here because it is more profitable to sell elsewhere.

Sure, there are the so-called “acts of God” that are beyond our control. Drought, earthquake, typhoon, terrorism (isn’t that also committed in the name of God?). But what kind of “deserving” businesses are we granting franchises to if they cannot plan around these things? We can already manipulate election results and launder multimillion dollars electronically, how hard can it be to provide electricity in times of drought? 

For a country famous for starting awesome revolutions — the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia in 1898 and the first bloodless people power revolution in 1986 — we suck in generating enough power. And yet we have an abundance of hydro, solar, geothermal, and wind.

Perhaps, it is time that we bring the Filipino spirit of people power to generating our electric power and not leave this very important business to profit-driven corporations.

I am no expert but based on how I and majority of Filipinos have suffered through the years with high cost of electricity, inefficient service and constant power outages without justification, I can boldly declare that the experiment on privatisation of power is an epic fail.

And it looks like that failure is worldwide, not just in the Philippines. According to Sharon Beder, in her article for the Australian Financial Review entitled “For Sale: The Power of the People”: “Since the mid-1990s dozens of governments around the world have chosen to restructure and privatise the provision of electricity. As a result there have been black-outs, price spikes, price manipulation, bankruptcies and electricity shortages. The privatisation of electricity is not something that their citizens have demanded or wanted. In fact, popular uprisings and mass protests have occurred in Argentina, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Ghana, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic.”

Beder noted a study by the World Bank of 61 privatised electricity companies in 18 countries found that profitability increased by an average of 45 percent. And this was usually achieved at the expense of workers and consumers.

It was also pointed out that black-outs and price spikes also increased as a result of “lower reserve levels of generation capacity brought about by the perverse incentives of the market system which give greater profits to private generating companies in times of electricity shortages.” 

In other words, private power companies are primarily motivated by profits for their investors and shareholders, not by their consumers’ welfare. They are not motivated to increase investments in new generation capacity because the market encourages withholding of electricity in times of peak demand to send prices higher. For private companies, the biggest risk in building new generation facilities is that they will cause wholesale electricity prices to fall.

Only a few knows if our current brownouts and price spikes are indeed caused by a real shortage in power generation. If all the power players are in collusion with an inept government that has no leadership and cannot effectively regulate, the people will always be kept in the dark, figuratively and literally.

It is time to take back the power and put it in the hands of the people. There are many models of community-owned electric utility companies. In the United States, the state of Nebraska is a success story for more than 100 years now. Canada has many examples of that as well. Germany is making its transition to renewal energy people-led with more decision-making powers to local governments and communities. In Mindanao, the people are mobilising all cooperatives to unite to buy the Agus-Pulangi Hydropower Complex to make our power truly owned by the people for the people.

When we vote this May 2016 elections, let us take back the power and choose leaders who are not beholden to profit-driven corporations and who are capable of ensuring accessible and affordable electricity to all. #

Posted in Opinion