Tilting at windmills: Bongbong Marcos’ wind farm initiative

By Alma Anonas-Carpio | Originally published in Graphic Magazine

The story of how Ilocos Norte Rep. Bongbong Marcos and his associates in the effort to free the town of Bangui from “dirty electricity”–electricity that dips and spikes—eerily echoes Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ opus The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha. Not just over the matter of “tilting at windmills,” but also over the path the congressman from the north had to beat to provide the Ilocos region with a steady, clean power supply.

Many in Manila have forgotten the blackouts of the 1990s. It is said that the reliable utilities like clean(read: steady) electricity and water, as well as reliable communications drive economic growth. Outside of imperial Manila, however, these utilities are luxuries.

“I remember that a friend once told me about wind power using windmills in 1998. I didn’t pay that comment much mind back then,” Marcos said in an interview with the Graphic.

“In 2002, I saw a patch of land in Bangui that was not good for planting crops or raising livestock. It was not good for anything. I asked one of my friends to go to that area and see if it would be suitable for use as a golf course, perhaps we could make a tourist destination of it instead of letting it go to waste,” he disclosed. “My friend said it would not make a good golf course because it was too windy.”

That was when the mustard seed planted in 1998 took root and sprouted, Marcos said. “That’s when my friends’ comments connected: Windmills were a potential source of clean energy and the place in Bangui was windy. So that was when we began planning a wind farm. I also wanted to free my constituency from dirty electricity–the kind that spikes and drops and destroys electronic equipment so that our people here did not want to buy appliances because the erratic power would destroy such equipment.”

The idea was good, he said, but the implementation was not easy, as there were no laws or guidelines in place for building windmill turbines for power generation. “We had to find sources of funding and we had to feel our way through the various clearances and certifications that were needed for the project because there were no guidelines for us to follow,” Marcos noted. “This had never been done before. We did not have carbon credits to start up with, either.” Funding came in the form of a Dutch government grant as assistance to this project, among others.

Carbon credits, he explains are an environmental incentive given to firms that work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, provide clean energy and use environmentally-sound practices and power. Such credits can be exchanged for cash or used to purchase more green technology and equipment. Carbon credits have become so successful an endeavor, Marcos said. “that there are firms that do nothing but trade in carbon credits. There are billions of dollars being traded just in carbon credits. That is how large the potential benefits of working to promote the environmental agenda is.”

Marcos noted that Ilocos Norte is at the very end of the country’s northern power grid, a situation that makes “every problem on the power grid our problem, as well, because each trip (in power supply) affect us.” The windmill farm, he said, was meant to provide the residents in the northernmost towns “with a power supply that would compensate for the dirty electricity and power fluctuations that were plaguing us.”

Then there was the matter of getting the locals to agree to the installation of windmills in Bangui, the easiest of the tasks Marcos had to complete on his quest for greener power for his constituents. “We had no problem with the local consultations. We explained the technology to the people and brought it to the mandatory hearing and consultations. They agreed to the installation of the wind farm because they saw the benefits to this technology for their community and for the rest of the province.”

Now, the Bangui wind farm is harnessing the winds that whip the northern tip of the country and, on a good day, provides 34 megawatts of power. This wind farm provides between 30% and 45% of the Ilocos region’s power requirements – a much larger, better result than any of the project proponents, Marcos included, had anticipated.

As an added bonus, the windmill farm has also become a tourist attraction, a development that “we never foresaw,” he said, adding that “we also did not foresee that our efforts to stabilize our own power supply would result in making our province a clean-energy model for other regions.” These, he said were pleasant surprises, “especially since starting the project was so difficult for us.”

Now, the problem Marcos and his associates in the windmill farm endeavor is in “finding a supply for our turbines” as demand for wind power and windmill turbines has grown considerably, “to the point that the United States has brought out our supply.” Marcos turned to “some old friends in China, who introduced me to one of China’s three turbine manufacturers.”

The Bangui project should soon see better, more efficient turbines capable of generating more megawatts of electricity, he added, as the Chinese turbine-makers “buy the best available turbines, reverse engineer them and offer windmills that incorporate the best features from the other manufacturers at a lower cost.”

The highest maintenance cost for the windmills of Bangui, Marcos said, “is in debugging. We have to constantly clean the blades of our turbines because insects get caught in them, stick to them and reduce their efficiency. It is not easy or cheap to clean turbines this big, I will tell you. We have to spray them down with water regularly to keep them functioning at peak efficiency.”

Marcos also cautioned that, while Ilocos has a set fine example with its clean power production, windmills “are not for everybody. The people who helped set up the Bangui project will probably look at other locations that may wish to harness wind power, set up one windmill and leave it there for a year to monitor the wind density and other factors that need to come together for wind turbine power generation to be viable in the area. If, after one year, these factors are not favorable for the development of wind farms, the experts will tell potential wind project proponents that wind farms are not viable option for them.”

Wind power also has its season, Marcos pointed out. “We have months when we expect more wind and, therefore greater wind density and power output, and there are the months when we expect the power generation capacity to taper off a bit because we will have less wind .” This, he said, makes a wind farm good as backup system for traditional power production methods, “but not as a main power source. You still need traditional power plants to provide the regular supply. In the future, when turbine technology is further refined, perhaps it would be possible , but not now.”

Is Marcos titling at windmills? Yes, he is and he seems to be doing so with a reasonable level of success that says, yes, looking for ways to provide clean power and to live in harmony with the environment can be beneficial indeed.

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