From the Newsrooms: January 1 to 6, 2024

Western Visayas begins 2024 with Panay blackout

THE POWER disruption that struck Panay Island ended up as a national story. The blackout could have happened elsewhere in the country, warning Filipinos they could be just as easily suffering such days of darkness. 

Coverage started typically with finger-pointing, with reports tracking the different angles raised by various heads of agencies involved. Reporters need to break away from this narrative line and move to the bigger picture that reviews energy as a system. 

The Marcos administration needs to see this system to improve the whole process of sustaining energy throughout the archipelago. Otherwise, it will add energy to education and agriculture as areas in which it could do so little to improve the situation. 

On January 2, the first workday of the year, the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) reported multiple tripping incidents in two of Panay Island’s six power plants, causing power outages across the four provinces (Aklan, Antique, Capiz, Iloilo) and its key cities. 

Guimaras Island and parts of Negros Occidental were also affected. With other plants already shut down for scheduled maintenance, the NGCP issued a yellow alert from 2 to 10 pm because of thin reserves. The blackout lasted three days.

Manila-based media started picking up on the widespread power interruption on January 3, with varying degrees of prominence. Philippine Daily Inquirer’s first account last January 3 was in its Regions section, while The Philippine Star gave the outage banner treatment on January 4. Other dailies also ran their first accounts on the front page.

On TV, 24 Oras and TV Patrol both reported the development on January 3; the former placed it within the first 15 minutes of the program, while the latter reported it in the last third of the newscast. The other free TV newscasts reported the issue later in the week, focusing on the residents and the experience of life without electricity.

Media coverage included statements from various sources. Several reports cited Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas who recalled that Visayas had experienced the same blackouts in April 2023. He claimed that the NGCP did not heed solutions offered by government agencies and other stakeholders to prevent further outages. Treñas estimated that Iloilo City alone was losing PHP 500 million daily due to the blackout. 

Media also reported the agreement expressed by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) officials who also blamed the NGCP for failing to provide failsafe mechanisms and assure the stability of the power grid. 

In an interview with ANC on January 4, Atty. Monalisa Dimalanta, ERC Chair, claimed it was impossible for all six power plants in the island to fail at the same time. On January 5, news accounts cited NGCP’s statement saying they only oversee power transmission, and “cannot intervene on matters concerning power generation.”

In a press briefing on January 5, DOE Assistant Secretary Mario Marasigan said the blackout could have been prevented had the NGCP completed on time the Cebu-Negros-Panay backbone project that would connect the power grids of these islands. Cynthia Alabanza, NGCP spokesperson, admitted to reporters the delay in the project, but noted that it is on track for completion in March. Alabanza agreed with Marasigan that the backbone project could have mitigated the impact of the  outage.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. joined the critics of NGCP, pointing out in a video message NGCP’s failure to adequately respond to unexpected shutdowns.

Media reported the full restoration of power in Panay around noon of January 5. Curiously, news coverage did not have anyone from the power generation sector explain what actually happened in the power plants. As of this writing, the root cause of the multiple tripping incidents also remains unclear.

Both Houses of Congress scheduled hearings on January 10 and 11 to discuss the Panay blackout. Journalists will probably rely on these sessions for further coverage. Typically, these would cite what politicians have to say. But reporters do not have to wait for those hearings; nor should they rely on these to actually explain or clarify what needs to be done. NGCP had been the subject of legislative inquiries concerning its franchise and ownership, and while it is a key figure in power, it is not the only agency that media should investigate for its lapses.

CMFR had pointed to the media’s limited coverage of the energy sector, which tends to look at functions of concerned agencies separately instead of mapping the entire chain to make better sense of the process. Media covered the red alerts called by the NGCP in June last year. Reports went on from defining the different alerts and then proceeded to follow the hearings in Congress.

CMFR reminded journalists then about the need for newsrooms “to understand the energy chain, from generation to storage, and from transmission to distribution” in order for reports to identify gaps and lapses in the entire process. But after the alerts, most media let go of the issue.  Newsrooms did not sustain their own probes. There were no follow-up interviews with more knowledgeable experts who can help them and the public understand what government agencies and private companies need to do to provide Filipinos with reliable and affordable power. 

It is not only the NGCP and other agencies that lacked follow up since June. Media must acknowledge how reports can help focus on a problem so as to avoid a crisis. The press can do their part by keeping these discussions alive between crises. Media working together could help these agencies focused on their duties to avoid even bigger blackouts in 2024.