By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

With the air-conditioner, television, computer, electric fan, and refrigerator eternally turned on, a typical Filipino household of five members usually has a monthly electric bill of P5,000.

Students in Isla Verde Island in Batangas play under the shade of a newly installed photovoltaic/solar panel assembly, which provides much needed electricity to their classrooms — One Meralco Foundation
Students in Isla Verde Island in Batangas play under the shade of a newly installed photovoltaic/solar panel assembly, which provides much needed electricity to their classrooms — One Meralco Foundation

But not everyone pays that much.

Eugene Gonzales, 57, has been harnessing the power of the sun on his roof through solar panels. He is one of the growing number of users of solar energy in the Philippines.

Back when he lived in a 120-sqm house in UP Village, his monthly electric bill ranged from P7,000 to P8,000. Then, when he moved to a bigger house — 320 sqm. — four years ago, he installed 10 solar panels which generate 2.5 kilowatts of energy. Today his electric bill, which also covers a fish pond that needs a 24/7 energy supply, is a measly P1,000 per month.

Parañaque resident Jose Ricardo Casas, 42, has a similar story. He said he has saved thousands of pesos on his electric bill, which used to range from P5,000 to P8,000. He has installed 12 solar panels at his home which can generate three kilowatts of power, enough — sometimes more than enough — for his family’s needs.

“Aside from saving, I also sell [electricity] because I get additional credit from the surplus of energy I didn’t consume,” Mr. Gonzales told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.

“What Meralco (Manila Electric Company) gets from me, they pay me [for],” he added.

Meralco, the biggest distributor of electricity in the Philippines, buys surplus electricity generated through solar power for P5 per kilowatt/hr.

Under Republic Act No. 9513 or the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, households using solar panels must have an arrangement called net metering, which, according to the act, “refers to a system, appropriate for distributed generation, in which a distribution grid user has a two-way connection to the grid and is only charged for his net electricity consumption and is credited for any overall contribution to the electricity grid.”

Solar panels can last for up to 25 years.

“[A solar panel] is financially more viable than buying a second-hand car. I think people should grab it,” said Mr. Casas.

He bought his panels for roughly P400,000, which is expensive for an ordinary Filipino family. “But if you come to think of it, your return of investment is around five years. Lumalabas na 20 years kang makakatipid, (It comes out to 20 years of saving money),” he told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.

It is a long-term investment, he said, because the electricity utility rate in the Philippines increases by 3% every year. The country has one of the most expensive electricity rates on the planet, joining Hawaii, Italy, Malta, Japan, Cyprus, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore as the top 10 nations with the highest rates (“PH electricity rates among 10 highest in survey of 44 countries,” Interaksyon, 2012).

Aside from saving money in the long run, the user also has the psychic benefit of knowing that he is doing his part in mitigating climate change.

Don’t worry when it isn’t sunny, said Mssrs. Casas and Gonzales. Solar panels still work when it is cloudy, albeit with an 80% drop in output which means one may not longer be able to use, say, an air conditioner, which is the most energy-consuming appliance.

Pag umuulan or walang araw, seamless, kasi automatic na kapag hindi na kaya ng solar or kapag ubos na ang na-save, automatic Meralco na,” said Mr. Gonzales. (When it is rainy or the sun is not out, it is seamless since Meralco automatically supplies electricity when your solar supply can not longer handle it or your reserves are drained.)

A household solar panel installation comes with a light emitting diode (LED) television to monitor which appliance uses the most energy, how much is left of your energy, and how much electricity the panels can produce in a day.

The two men could not think of any disadvantage of solar energy, except “dapat hindi ka na lilipat ng bahay, (you should not move house) because it is hard to uninstall,” said Mr. Casas.

In a tropical country like the Philippines, it seems like common sense to exploit the power of sunlight as a sustainable energy source.

But its use is not as widespread as one would expect.

Instead, one of the country’s primary energy sources is coal, which, while cheap, is hugely damaging to the environment. Coal energy is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide releases that fuels global warming.

It all comes down to money. After all, a solar panel setup costs around P400,000.

“Renewable is free in terms of source. But what makes it expensive is the technology,” said Climate Change Commission Secretary Lucille Sering in a meeting with BusinessWorld editors in May.

Solenergy panels at Robinsons — Solenergy
Solenergy panels at Robinsons — Solenergy

Still, there is hope as prices are falling.

“Besides Germany, what did China do? They practically brought down solar to its lowest cost,” she said. “[Today] they are one of the highest users of renewable energy in terms of quantity.”

Besides the expensive technology, Ms. Sering noted that the Philippine government has yet to take the first step in fully adopting renewable energy technologies because the data regarding the country’s power requirements remain insufficient.

The problem with the Philippines, she said, is that everybody is okay with any energy source as long as it’s affordable, despite its environmental impact. “They’re not looking at renewable energy, they just want energy at the lowest cost possible,” she said.

But then again, Ms. Sering said, “At the end of the day, it’s the willingness of the consumer to pay. [Solar energy is] already there, it wouldn’t be far [behind], given the increased purchasing power of Filipinos.”

According to Anjo Crisostomo, marketing and business development manager of Solenergy Systems Inc., “the three major hurdles [why the Philippines has not yet fully embraced the technology] are incentives, financing, and education.”

Solenergy, endorsed by the Department of Energy as a Renewable Energy systems engineering and solutions provider, has among its clients Kraft Foods (Mondelez International) in Parañaque City, International School Manila in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, Rockwell Land for 8 Rockwell in Makati City, and Salamangka Beach and Dive Resort in Siquijor, among others. It also provides solar panels for some households.

“[Solar energy could] only genuinely make sense to the masses when financed over 10 years or more,” he said.

“We’d like to see more incentives for the end-user, such as zero-duty tariffs on more components and tax credits for businesses that install solar on their premises,” he added.

Mr. Crisostomo told BusinessWorld through e-mail interview that big businesses, unlike individual households, don’t need net metering, because “Commercial clients, especially in terms of an industrial scale, are big power users and normally consume all the generated power from solar. With that said, solar basically offsets a percentage of their total power load,” he said.

Solenergy installs panels depending on the client’s need. “Each kilowatt installed in Metro Manila can expect to generate up to 1,400 kilowatt hours per year. So a 10-kilowatt system, correctly installed, should yield 14,000 kilowatt hour (kWh) in its first year. If you’re able to offset P10/kWh, this translates to P140,000/year.”

Despite the difficulties, going solar could be done.

Last year, Germany — which is not exactly known for being sunny — drew over 50% of its electricity needs from solar (“Germany gets 50% of its electricity from solar for the first time,” The Week, June 20, 2014).

Oddly enough, going solar does not necessarily mean the production of electricity. There is, for example, a way of bringing light into dark homes, at least during the day.

The Liter of Light or Isang Litrong Liwanag project of the My Shelter Foundation, initiated by Filipino social entrepreneur Illac Diaz, uses old soft drink bottles filled with chlorine and water, which, when properly set in a roof, can provide as much light as a 55-watt bulb in a dark room. The bottles used as lightbulbs can last for three years.

Invented by Brazilian Alfred Moser, the bottles have helped to bring light to communities living without electricity. Currently, it has brightened up 28,000 homes and the lives of 70,000 people in Metro Manila alone. Today Liter of Light is present in India, Indonesia, and even Switzerland.

But sometimes, you need more than a bottle of light. While installing solar energy power in off-grid places can be expensive, some schools in far-flung areas without access to electricity — including Lake Sebu in Cotabato, the Dinagat Islands in Northern Mindanao, Isla Verde in Batangas, and Surigao del Norte — have also been lighting up. They are the beneficiaries of the solar energy project of One Meralco Foundation (OMF), the corporate social responsibility arm of Meralco.

“Launched in 2011, the program hopes to help address the problem affecting more than 5,000 remote public schools today without access to electricity. Teachers in these schools are stuck with traditional teaching methods since they could not use modern learning tools such as computers, slideshow presentations, and audio-visual materials. As a result, their students lag behind, especially in terms of information technology,” OMF President Jeffrey Tarayao. “Some schools resort to using generators, which are not only expensive but also costly to maintain and operate because they need fuel.”

To energize a school, OMF invests an estimated P750,000 to acquire and install high-output solar energy systems.

“This makes it possible for teachers in places like Kibang National High School in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato to skip traversing kilometers of dirt road uphill and downhill just to print their reports,” said Mr. Tarayao.

The foundation also donates computers and printers and other items to every school they have “solarized.”

While solar energy technology will take time (and a huge amount of money) to be mainstreamed, at least some people and institutions have started harnessing the eternal power of the sun.