By Kris Crismundo

EARLY SHUTDOWN. The tailrace of the 120-megawatt Pantabangan Hydroelectric Power (PHEP) plant in Pantabangan, Nueva Ecija in this photo taken on Tuesday (March 19, 2024). The two units of PHEP, among other hydropower units of First Gen Corp. in Nueva Ecija, will shut down earlier than expected as water in the Pantabangan Reservoir has been drying up faster amid the El Niño phenomenon. (PNA photo by Kris M. Crismundo)

PANTABANGAN, Nueva Ecija – The impacts of the El Niño phenomenon could now be seen in the power sector as the suspension of hydroelectric power plants in Nueva Ecija could come in earlier than expected.

The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) has forecast that the Pantabangan Reservoir would reach its critical level of 177 meters by March 27.

First Gen Hydro Power complex head for the Casecnan and Pantabangan plants Richard Difuntorum told reporters here Tuesday that the suspension of the company’s hydropower facilities this year would be earlier than the past years amid the ongoing El Niño.

“Actually, this time it will start early because we started the year with lower elevation,” Difuntorum said in mixed English and Filipino, noting that there were fewer typhoons and a lower amount of rainfall last year.

“Normally, (the shutdown is on the) third week of April,” he added.

On Tuesday, the water level in the Pantabangan Reservoir was already at 179.97 meters even before the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) officially announces the start of the hot dry season.

Difuntorum said hydropower plants in Pantabangan go offline when they reach the 177-meter critical level.

He said that among the units that would halt operations and undergo regular maintenance are the two units of the Pantabangan Hydroelectric Plant (PHEP) and the Masiway Hydroelectric Plant (MHEP), which are owned by the unit of the Lopez-led First Gen Corp.

He said PHEP 1 and 2 currently have a combined power generation of more or less 50 megawatts (MW) or about 40 percent of its full capacity of 120 MW.

The MHEP has a power capacity of 12 MW.

Difuntorum added that aside from the 132-MW Pantabangan-Masiway hydroelectric plants, First Gen’s newly acquired Casecnan Hydroelectric Power Plant (HEPP) would also shut down its Unit 2 before the month ends to undergo maintenance until end of April or May this year.

Casecnan HEPP’s Unit 1 is currently undergoing maintenance and will go online on March 25.

Casecnan HEPP sources its power from the Casecnan River in Nueva Ecija and Taan River in Nueva Vizcaya. (PNA)