Tue, Oct 30, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Seeking a greener alternative to power the rural Philippines

By Alanah Torralba  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, NORZAGARAY, Philippines

In battling the timber poachers who roam the thick Sierra Madre forests near his home, Larry Garaes has found a new ally: solar panels.

With solar chargers, the radios he and other forest rangers rely on no longer run out of power on multi-day operations in the mountains, he said.

“Communication between rangers is a lot better. Now, we can catch the poachers while they are in the act, because we can coordinate our moves quietly without resorting to shouting at the next ranger — unlike before,” he told reporters.

Access to clean energy is bringing a range of unexpected benefits around the world. On the longest mountain range in the Philippines, those benefits include better forest protection — and power for tribal people who once lacked it.

More than 2 million households — or about 10 percent of all households — in the Philippines lack electricity, according to a report last year by the Philippine Department of Energy.

About three-quarters are in remote, rural locations, in a country spread over thousands of islands, according to the Small Power Utilities Group (SPUG), which is trying to get them connected.

Because bringing the national grid power to many of those people is not cost-effective, state-owned National Power Corp has charged SPUG with setting up and running small power plants in these areas.

So far, 327 such plants have been established, according to National Power.

Government plans call for 100 percent electrification of the country by 2022.

“Government has to do its work to connect all those areas that are not yet connected to the grid,” said Edmundo Veloso, the head of National Power’s SPUG unit.

However, all but one of the new generation plants use diesel fuel, he said — even though transport of fuel can be a big problem in remote areas.

Diesel is “the fastest and the only technology available at the moment for off-grid areas. Diesel is still the cheapest in terms of capital outlay,” he said.

However, in Garaes’ community in Bulacan Province in the northern Philippines, two solar micro-grids are providing the community’s first power.

They were put in place in December last year by the Forest Foundation Philippines, a non-governmental organization that aims to improve forest protection, and the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST), a Quezon City-based organization focused on expanding use of clean power.

While the new grid was primarily set up to help members of the local Dumagat ethnic group police the forests, it also supplies power free of charge to common areas of the village of 36 families, including a study hall and communal kitchens.

The forest rangers and other members of the community have been trained to troubleshoot and maintain the system, CREST officials said.

“In the past, we would need to walk almost 2km to the nearest village where there is electricity to charge our radios and cellphones for a fee,” Garaes said. “That was a burden to us.”

Such solar micro-grids could fill gaps in providing electricity to many remote areas of the Philippines, as they are cheap to operate and do not face the fuel transport issue of diesel-run plants, said Sara Ahmed, an energy analyst for the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“It’s not economically viable to transfer power from one [place] to another if the demand is not high. That’s why far-flung areas don’t get power,” Ahmed said.

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