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It just got harder to build coal power plants in the Philippines

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The Philippines' new environment secretary will prioritise renewable energy over fossil fuels like coal in approving permits for new power plants.

[MANILA] The Philippines' new environment secretary will prioritise renewable energy over fossil fuels like coal in approving permits for new power plants.

South-east Asia's fastest growing economy should build wind, solar and geothermal projects to capitalise on falling costs and minimise emissions, Gina Lopez, named Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources by President Rodrigo Duterte last month, said in an interview in her office Thursday. Ms Lopez said her family's ties to renewable energy companies don't affect her views.

Ms Lopez, 62, whose office gives environmental approval for new power plants in the Philippines as it nearly doubles electricity generation by 2030, stopped short of promising to never approve a new coal-fired plant.

She said she would make decisions in consultation with the Department of Energy, which has said the Philippines will have to continue to rely on coal.

"Why allow more coal plants? Why commit to a form of energy that has no future?" Ms Lopez said in an interview with Bloomberg Thursday. "I'm not keen on it. I'd have to be very convinced."

Energy Department officials did not immediately respond to e-mails and phone calls for comment. New Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said at a July 4 press briefing the country couldn't afford to not use coal as it seeks to reduce electricity costs while finding a balance between adequate supply and protecting the environment.

"We have to find that balance, not everything can be renewable," he said.

Coal accounted for 45 per cent of the nation's electricity output in 2015, with natural gas at 23 per cent, according to Energy Department statistics. Geothermal, hydro and other renewable sources accounted for about a quarter.

Plummeting costs for solar generation mean that if the Philippines commits to new coal plants now, it could be stuck paying higher prices for higher-emission power for the next two decades, Ms Lopez said. The cost of photovoltaic modules, the largest part of solar costs, has fallen from US$72 per watt in 1976 to 60 US cents last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Costs will fall another 60 per cent by 2040, BNEF said in its New Energy Outlook last month.

Ms Lopez's family own First Gen Corp and Energy Development Corp, which both operate geothermal power generation in the Philippines. Ms Lopez said her family's investments have no bearing on her decisions.

"I'm not going renewable because of them. I'm going renewable because it's for the Filipino people," she said. "And if they benefit, well, other people can also benefit. My thing to the businessmen, go renewable so you can also benefit."