By Victor V. Saulon

MANILA ELECTRIC Co. (Meralco) is expanding its hybrid solar power system in Cagbalete Island in Quezon province to reach one megawatt (MW) for completion within a year if it is able to secure the necessary regulatory permits, a company official said.

“The pilot (project) in Cagbalete was 60 kilowatts (kW), pero (but) the next one, we want it in the megawatt range na (already),” Lawrence S. Fernandez, Meralco vice-president and head of utility economics, said in a chance interview last week.

“We have operationalized the one in Isla Verde. We’re waiting for DoE (Department of Energy) and ERC (Energy Regulatory Commission) permits for the one in Cagbalete Island. But even while waiting for the permit for that, we already filed a letter of intent with DoE to expand it, to be able to serve more customers in Cagbalete,” he said.

Meralco energized its Isla Verde power system in Batangas province on Feb. 15, through a collaboration with local government units and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The microgrid, or a small-scale electricity grid, is a hybrid of a 32-kW solar energy system and a 192-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery storage facility. It can be operated independently from the country’s interconnected network of power transmission facilities.

“If we can get the permits, we can finish it within the year,” Mr. Fernandez said about the Cagbalete expansion.

He said the target is to be able to serve the two barangays in Cagbalete. The expansion is for the southern barangay, he added. Both Isla Verde and Cagbalete islands are part of Meralco’s franchise area.

The islands are accessible only by a boat ride from the Luzon main island, making it a challenge to connect with the mainland power grid. For years, locals have been subsisting on diesel generator sets for electricity at night.

Both islands have become popular tourist destinations, but their development has been weighed down by the slow growth in tourism infrastructure because of inadequate electricity.

Separately, the chairman of the Senate committee on energy is planning to file a bill that will regulate microgrid systems, thus offering a level planning field to a nascent industry that has given a first-mover advantage to solar energy developer Leandro L. Leviste.

“This is a law that will allow microgrids to operate in unserved and underserved areas. So it will not be only for Solar Para Sa Bayan but open na ngayon (will now be open). There’s now a framework for everyone without a franchise,” Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian told reporters last week.

Mr. Leviste’s Solar Para Sa Bayan Corp., which is awaiting a congressional franchise to operate in some areas in the Philippines, can still participate, the senator said.

Ang objective naman namin (Our objective) is to even the playing field,” he said, adding that microgrid proponents need not apply for a congressional franchise to operate.

He differentiates the bill from existing regulation covering a “qualified third-party,” which is allowed to operate in an unserved and unviable area waived by the franchisee, as the proposal will also allow the entry into underserved areas.

Mr. Gatchalian said an underserved area is one that enjoys less than a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week electricity. Unserved areas have no electricity while unviable areas have no electricity because they are not deemed to be profitable for a power developer or a utility.

“DoE will also determine other measure for underserved [areas],” he said.

“So, let’s say El Nido madalas mag-brownout (which often experiences brownouts) can be declared as underserved. A microgrid operator can now go into El Nido,” he added.

Mr. Gatchalian said the bill will grant a permit to operate to a microgrid developer through a competitive selection process, a scheme that rewards those who offer the least cost of electricity.

A microgrid operator is “vertically integrated,” thus it covers the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, he said.