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Welcome to the Philippines, welcome to coal country

Philippines typhoon damage

Typhoon Rammasun has devastated homes and cut off power supplies. Brian Candy under a Creative Commons Licence

It has been six days without electricity in some parts of the Philippines. In Laguna, in the southern part of the country, for instance, some residents are struggling to get on with their lives amid the darkness and the scorching heat at night. ‘We just want to know when power will be restored,’ one resident told me.

Power lines have been toppled. Six days ago, Typhoon Rammasun hit the country, shutting down the Philippine capital, bringing down electricity lines and leaving at least 80 people dead. In badly hit areas, power restoration could take up to two weeks, according to the country’s energy chief, Carlos Jericho Petilla.

It’s a combination of many problems. Some power plants affected by the typhoon have long start-up times. Infrastructure – transmission lines and distribution towers – have been destroyed.

But being paralysed by natural disasters such as typhoons isn’t the only problem facing the Philippine power sector: there is also a lack of long-term planning to secure energy security. The majority of existing power plants still run on coal – 14 of them in total, scattered around the country.

Yes, we are breathing, drinking and eating coal emissions in this part of the world.

Welcome to the Philippines, welcome to coal country.

The use of coal compounds the already precarious power situation here. It’s not just an insufficient supply, it’s a dirty supply.

According to data from the Department of Energy, in 2013, coal-fired power plants accounted for 5,568 megawatts in installed capacity. Oil-based power plants came in second, with 3,353 MW, followed by natural gas power plants, with 2,862 MW. Geothermal energy accounted for 1,868 MW.

The 2013 figures for renewable sources were: 3,521 MW for the hydropower plants; 33 MW for wind; 119 MW for biomass and just 1 MW for solar.

Although efforts are being made to increase renewable energy capacity through government incentives, renewable energy has yet to gain ground. The Philippines is at the mercy of coal-plant operators for much of the country’s power requirements.

Coal operators insist that times have changed and the there’s no such thing as dirty coal any more. But Climate Change Commissioner Naderev Saño has the opposite view. He said in an interview that there is no such thing as clean coal. Coal will always be dirty, because the process still produces coal ash, which contaminates the environment. The process of extracting coal in itself creates black wastelands.

‘There can be relatively “cleaner” coal technologies, but it can never be truly “clean”,’ he explained.

This means that burning coal to generate power remains an environmental hazard. This, Saño said, is the main cause of the heat-trapping gases that cause anthropogenic climate change.

In the Philippines, authorities have opted for the cheaper option, which is coal, ignoring environmental and public-health concerns.

Greenpeace, for its part, is pushing for renewable energy. It also says that that there really is no such thing as clean coal:

‘Coal is a highly polluting energy source. It emits more carbon per unit of energy than oil and natural gas. Carbon dioxide represents the major portion of greenhouse gases. It is therefore one of the leading contributors to climate change. From mine to sky, from extraction to combustion, coal pollutes every step of the way. The huge environmental and social costs associated with coal usage make it an expensive option for developing countries. From acid drainage coming from coal mines, polluting rivers and streams, to the release of mercury and other toxins when it is burned, as well as climate-destroying gases and find particulates that wreak havoc on human health, coal is unquestionably dirty.’

Among the emissions of coal plants is sulphur dioxide, which causes coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and nasal congestion; particulate matter crosses from the lungs into the bloodstream, resulting in inflammation of the cardiac system, which in turn is a root cause of cardiac disease, including heart attack and stroke.

Another pollutant emitted by coal plants is mercury, which has developmental effects in babies born to mothers who eat contaminated fish while pregnant.

How do we save ourselves and the environment from these pollutants? I am waiting for the government’s reply. 

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