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Rural electrification must be accelerated

June 22, 2019

THE head of the National Electrification Administration (NEA) was a guest at the annual assembly of the Benguet Electric Cooperative earlier this week, and in his speech to the stakeholders of one of the country’s more successful distribution utilities, provided some startling statistics:

In 50 years of the government’s rural electrification drive, just 89.5 percent of the more than 14 million households identified in 1969 have been connected to electricity service, NEA Administrator Edgardo Masongsong said. To reach the 2.3 million households scattered across 16,000 areas that still do not have electricity, the government will need to invest at least P40 billion.

Although the NEA does strive to maintain accurate data, the number of households may even be a bit larger than 2.3 million, given the Philippines’ population growth in the past decades. As it is, 2.3 million households represent about 11 million individual Filipinos, or about 10 percent of the population.

Masongsong also explained that the NEA had proposed a budget of P5.2 billion this year for the government’s rural electrification program, but cuts by Malacañang and Congress reduced that to just P800 million. At that rate, it would take the government another 50 years to bring electricity to every household in the country.

We appreciate that bringing electricity to areas that do not have it is a technical and financial challenge. Given that government resources are not limitless, the goals of the rural electrification program must be balanced against other vital developments and government services. Under the most ideal circumstances, it would still require a number of years of dedicated work for all the objectives to be achieved.

Electrification, however, must be considered among the most vital needs of the people, and pursued with as much effort as resources allow. Access to electricity improves health and safety, allows the pursuit of entrepreneurial activity and raises the overall quality of life.

It is frankly astonishing that, nearly two decades into the 21st century, such a large part of the population could still be without access to electricity. It is one characteristic of impoverished nations that the Philippines could and should have left behind long ago, and absolutely must, as soon as possible.

Fortunately, technology has provided many new options for powering hard-to-reach areas. The conventional solution of connecting every home and neighborhood to a power grid is no longer necessary, and in many instances is not even the most economical solution. Advances in renewable energy such as solar power have made it possible to provide reliable sources of electricity for small areas and even individual homes without connecting to a larger grid. In areas where solar power is not feasible, other sources of energy such as wind, small hydroelectric facilities, or small power plants fueled by biomass may be applicable.

All that is needed is the technical know-how — which is something that can be bought or borrowed — and the political will to carry it out. The government should review its approach to rural electrification and the administrative tools it has to pursue it, and make necessary changes to improve the results. Above all, adequate financial resources must be made available for the effort. Electrification cannot be considered an optional cost, but rather a value-adding investment in the people and the nation’s future.

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