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Capitalizing on a sunrise industry

The Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2022 has concluded its search for the country’s most undaunted and unstoppable entrepreneurs. Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines is a program of the SGV Foundation, Inc., with the participation of co-presenters the Asian Institute of Management, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Philippine Business for Social Progress, and the Philippine Stock Exchange. BusinessWorld is featuring each finalist for the Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2022 ahead of the awards ceremony on Nov. 21.

Leandro Leviste
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
Solar Philippines Power
Project Holdings, Inc.

LEANDRO LEVISTE was only 20 years old when he said he started investing in Tesla and Solar City, both US companies that specialized in manufacturing solar panels. He observed that when the stock price of Tesla did well, it illustrated that the market had underestimated the potential for solar energy. Inspired by this, he believed that he could bring this energy solution to the Philippines, where the electricity rates were among the highest. In 2013, he invested his savings to set up Solar Philippines Power Project Holdings, Inc. (Solar Philippines).

Solar Philippines started with rooftop installations, where the company would import solar panels from China. The company completed the first solar panel rooftop installation at the Central Mall in Biñan City, Laguna, followed by the SM City North EDSA project where 5,760 solar panels were installed — the largest solar-powered rooftop installation at a mall in the country.

“It started with the rooftops, but it has always been about the potential demand for solar, which is driven by the falling cost of the solar panels whether on the roof or on the ground,” he said.

In 2016, the company was able to avail of a subsidy program from the Department of Energy for solar projects completed until March of the same year. The Calatagan Solar Farm enabled the funding of the rest of Solar Philippines’ projects. Between 2016 and 2018, the company signed three power supply agreements with Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), including one with a starting rate of P2.9999 per kilowatt-hour, the lowest cost for any power plant in the Philippines.

Solar Philippines claimed it is currently the largest solar energy production company in Southeast Asia with over 400 megawatts (MW) of operating or under construction and 10 gigawatts (GW) under development. It currently has solar farms in Batangas, Nueva Ecija and Tarlac.

Part of its success, Mr. Leviste said, is that Solar Philippines is a pioneer in the industry. “The traditional challenges in the power industry are developing the project, getting off-take and getting funded, so we were very fortunate,” he said. “We were the first mover in an industry at the time when there was no competition.”

Part of the reason why Solar Philippines solely focuses on solar farms is because it tried everything in the solar business and found that solar farm development in the greater Manila area is unique and has the most opportunity for growth. “In the case of solar energy, it was a short window of entry and a large market appeared, so we were in the right place to capitalize on it,” he said.

Solar Philippines started providing large-scale solar energy rather than going into retail because installing rooftop panels was difficult to do one customer at a time. With its solar farm model, the company can create much more generation to supply the country’s energy needs, helping to reduce overall power costs and ensure energy sufficiency. Mr. Leviste noted that a large part of the company’s operations involves land development — being able to buy the land and secure the right permits and right of way to be able to construct the solar farms that unlock the value of the land.

By creating utility-scale solar farms, Solar Philippines is generating additional electricity supply for the Luzon grid and increasing the productivity of many communities and customers. Its Calatagan Solar Farm has generated over 500 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of clean energy, and enough to power over six municipalities in Batangas, while sourcing the majority of its workforce from the locals in nearby areas. The Tarlac Solar Farm, which is in partnership with another company, completed its first phase, with a total capacity of 100 MW, in 2020.

Always looking to capitalize on a growing industry, Mr. Leviste said that Solar Philippines is building the world’s first large-scale solar-battery baseload project after securing an original proponent status to supply Meralco with up to 200 MW on a 24 hour a day basis from a 1,800 MW solar and 1,800-MWh battery project, which could replace the capacity of a 200-MW coal power plant. The power generated from the project will be 20-40% cheaper than from fossil fuel. Mr. Leviste aims to show solar with batteries can deliver a cost-competitive baseload power that can benefit Filipino consumers.

According to Mr. Leviste, Solar Philippines’ biggest CSR contribution is being able to provide the country with low-cost solar energy, setting the benchmark for lowering energy costs.

The company’s other developments include a 3,500-MW solar, 4,500-MWh battery project to supply Meralco 850 MW of mid-merit power for around 12 hours per day, and another 2300 MW of projects contracted under the Department of Energy’s Green Energy Auction, including a 500-MW Solar Farm in Nueva Ecija. These would potentially bring the company’s contracted capacity to 8 GW scheduled to commence operations mostly between 2025 and 2026, which it estimates would be two-thirds of the total contracted renewable energy capacity of the Philippines.

A subsidiary, Solar Philippines Nueva Ecija Corp., launched its initial public offering on the Philippine Stock Exchange. The proceeds will fund the company’s developments in Nueva Ecija, which according to Mr. Leviste, will be largest in Southeast Asia.

“All of these projects are consistent to the original goal which is to accelerate the adoption of solar in the Philippines. The more value we can create, the faster we can get there,” Mr. Leviste said.

The media sponsors of the Entrepreneur of the Year Philippines 2022 are BusinessWorld and the ABS-CBN News Channel. Gold Sponsors are SteelAsia Manufacturing Corp., Uratex, and Navegar. Silver Sponsors are Intellicare, OneWorld Alliance Logistics Corp., and Regan Industrial Sales, Inc. Banquet Co-presenter is PMFTC, Inc. Banquet Sponsors are Uratex, MerryMart Consumer Corp., Robert Blancaflor Group, Inc., International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI), Joy~Nostalg and Vista Land & Lifescapes, Inc.

The winners of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2022 will be announced on Nov. 21 in an awards banquet at the Grand Hyatt Manila. The Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines will represent the country in the World Entrepreneur Of The Year 2023 in Monte Carlo, Monaco in June 2023. The Entrepreneur Of The Year program is produced globally by Ernst & Young (EY).