Untangling the Philippines’ energy trilemma

From left: Energy Regulatory Commission Chairperson and CEO Atty. Monalisa Dimalanta, First Philippine Holdings Corp. Chief Sustainability Officer Agnes De Jesus, Aboitiz Power Corp. Head of Energy Transition Projects Felino Bernardo, and Department of Energy Undersecretary Giovanni Bacordo

By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran, Special Features Assistant Editor; Angela Kiara S. Brillantes, Special Features and Content Writer; and Jomarc Angelo M. Corpuz

In a modern world beset by various societal, economic, and environmental issues, few challenges loom as ominously as the energy trilemma.

It’s a Gordian knot of competing needs and aspirations, a complex puzzle with global repercussions. On one side, the relentless demand for accessible and affordable energy to power our homes, fuel our industries, and drive inclusive societal progress. On another, the ever-present anxiety that is energy security, which is sorely needed to safeguard against disruptions to daily life, and brings to mind the precariousness of the world’s finite resources. There is also the third side, the urgent call for sustainability, as the specter of climate change haunts the very livability of the archipelagic Philippines in the future.

Navigating this trilemma demands more than just technical expertise; it requires a delicate balance of innovation, policy reform, and societal engagement.

Atty. Monalisa C. Dimalanta, chairperson and CEO of the Energy Regulatory Commission, said in her keynote address at a recently-concluded BusinessWorld Insights and Project KaLIKHAsan forum that the energy trilemma comprise the “most urgent and critical issues of our time, right up there with food security and health.”

Atty. Dimalanta noted that such an encompassing issue demands attention from the entire country, not simply from the government.

“Some would say, in fact, that the regulator has no role or has very limited role in the discussion of the energy trilemma; and, perhaps in the context of other countries, that is correct. In the Philippine context, however, it is my view that we all have a role to play in charting our country’s energy,” she said.

Atty. Dimalanta identified the various government programs that aim to address the different facets of the energy trilemma, such as the Green Energy Auction Program, the Net-Metering Program, and the revised Renewable Portfolio Standards.

“In all of these programs, the primary driver of course, is the desire to achieve an energy industry in the Philippines that is secure, despite our lack of fossil fuel resources; equitable, knowing that it is energy that is fueling our growing economy; and environmentally sustainable, because we are only stewards of these resources. We owe it to the next generation of Filipinos to leave them with a fighting chance for a better future.”

Energy sustainability

Agnes C. De Jesus, chief sustainability officer of First Philippine Holdings Corp. (FPH), discussed about energy sustainability, which she defined as striking the right balance between energy security and environmental protection towards uplifting present and future generations.

She noted that the transformation of the energy sector goes beyond changing power sources and thus lies within production, distribution, and consumption of power.

“Because transition is not just changing the type of power to renewable energy. By transformation (and energy sustainability), we mean changing the way we produce power, changing the way we distribute power, and use power,” Ms. De Jesus said in her presentation.

Her presentation added that with the rise of energy demand coinciding with the imperative to mitigate emissions, crucial steps have to be taken, among them developing low-carbon solutions are feasible and cost-effective.

Ms. De Jesus also commented during the forum’s panel discussion that investments in sensors, thermal imagers, green transformers, and carbon-capturing technologies can aid in the Philippine’s transition.

She further expressed that the country has to be practical in the transition to renewable energy (RE), citing studies from the University of Finland as well as climate analytics from November last year.

“While we want 100% [REs] and technically it’s feasible, there are certain considerations that were also listed that the government has to pay attention to and systematically work on. For example, for us to be 100% RE, we need to surge our solar [capacities]. If we don’t want gas to be our transition fuel, we need to drastically lower the costs of batteries that support solar,” Ms. De Jesus explained.

Energy security

Presenting about energy security, Felino M. Bernardo, head of energy transition projects of Aboitiz Power Corp. (AboitizPower), defined energy security as “having dependable and affordable access for everyone.”

“In this complex process we are undergoing, there is no cheap way to go through this and we have to be deliberate around the cost. But, how we select, how we decide on the cost is by making decisions today not only for us but for generations to come. It entails and ensures a stable energy supply that can meet the population and economy’s needs while safeguarding against destruction and external shocks,” Mr. Bernardo said in his presentation.

Mr. Bernardo added that several steps are being taken to ensure a secure and more sustainable energy landscape, such as diversifying energy mix; exploring cleaner and more abundant fuels; and investing in grid modernization, which is expected to incorporate a growing amount of RE and recover quickly from natural disasters.

Regarding the potential of nuclear energy for the country, Mr. Bernardo said that results from other countries show that the resource can help deliver a more affordable and secure energy source, although the Philippines still has quite a long way to develop capabilities and regulations.

“It’s going to be part of the solution, definitely. Eventually, it should be part of the energy mix. It’s a good source of baseload energy, dispatchable, safe, and carbon-free,” Mr. Bernardo shared during the panel discussion.

Mr. Bernardo also added that distributed power through energy packets and the transformation of retired power plants with innovations can also be a solution to the transmission problem.

“We have to look at what we have today and optimize that before we proceed with other technologies because we already have great [plants]. We should look at options of what should we do to optimize what we have, so it’s using existing power plants and converting them to be cleaner, upgrading the current transmission system by using newer technology for it to be able to carry more power to the load centers,” Mr. Bernardo said.

A long-term effort

Department of Energy Undersecretary Giovanni Bacordo also joined the forum with a closing address on the current landscape and long-term goals of the country’s energy sector.

“My first takeaway when I first reported to the Department of Energy way back September of 2020 is that whatever we are doing at the department now, will be felt ten years from now. It’s not like building a waiting shed or a small building, which can be finished within the year,” Mr. Bacordo said.

He is confident that currently, as the government puts into motion its comprehensive energy program, the Philippines can look forward towards an energy system that is inclusive, secure, and sustainable.

“The realization of the energy plan, which embeds energy transition strategies, entails both a whole-of-government and a whole-of-nation approach. The path towards energy transition is a mutual effort and this resonates with the departments’ continued engagement with government agencies, the regulators, energy stakeholders, development partners, and financing institutions,” Mr. Bacordo noted.

“Again, let me reiterate what we are doing now will be felt ten years from now. So stay with us, because the best is yet to come.”