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Solar panels: Embrace the sun to power homes

January 2, 2011

By Kristine L. Alave
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:10:00 12/31/2010


MANILA, Philippines—When the whole of Metro Manila was plunged into darkness after Tropical Storm “Ondoy” devastated the capital in late September 2009, Naderev “Yeb” Saño’s house was the only one in his neighborhood that remained lighted at night.

While everyone else did their chores and sat to dinner by candlelight, the Saño family had power thanks to the solar power kit that Saño had installed in his house in Barangay Bagong Silangan, Quezon City, more than a year ago.

Unlike the rest of Metro Manila, which endured power blackouts for several days after the typhoon, the Saño household could plug on the radio or the television. There was power for cooking, and for doing the laundry.

At night, Saño’s two children had lights when they needed to study or read.

“Everyone had no light but the house had an autonomy of three days,” he said in an interview.

For environment’s sake

Asked why he decided to install the solar energy kit despite the cost, Saño, who works as a commissioner at the Commission on Climate Change, said it was a sacrifice he wanted to make for the sake of the environment.

“The primary benefit is that you feel good about the environment. I also feel that my Meralco bill is lower,” he said.

The Saño household’s electricity bill reached as much as P2,000 in the past. Since using sun power, it has been cut by half, said Saño.

Best for household use

Solar energy, which is best for household use, is also more reliable than conventional energy sources, as seen during Typhoon Ondoy, he said. In the days after Ondoy, while Meralco was scrambling to fix the transmission lines and raise downed electrical posts, the Saño family had solar power to tide them over.

“This not only addresses climate change, but this also builds resiliency during extreme weather events,” said Saño.

“During times of calamities, solar power works well. If your electricity gets cut, you can still have another source,” he added.

Saño’s house is equipped with a 150-watt peak system that cost him P90,000 when he had it installed in early 2009. The solar energy kit includes a photovoltaic panel, a charge controller, batteries and inverter to convert the power to 220 volts.

“If you have it installed today, it will probably cost only half. China is aggressive in manufacturing solar panels. The cost has been lowered and they found that the panels have a longer lifespan than they had thought,” he said.

A basic kit without inverter and batteries, which are sold and used in remote rural areas off-grid, would be about P25,000, he said.

The photovoltaic panel, which catches the sunlight, is nailed to the roof. The panel is connected to the controller, batteries, and inverter, which are stored in a back cupboard. With just one switch, Saño can turn off his Meralco supply and use the power from the solar energy kit.

Anyone can maintain the system, said Saño, who is also an official of the World Wildlife Fund Phil. He said he only cleans the panel once a month.

Unrealized potential

The Philippines has an abundance of sunlight. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the country, which is located just north of the equator, is in a good position to harness the power of the sun.

The Philippines has the potential to collect solar power at an average of 5.1 kilowatt-hour/m2/day.

But this potential is not yet realized, said Saño. Filipinos are discouraged by the high cost of putting up a solar energy kit in their households. Besides, being connected to Meralco is cheaper at present. Most Filipinos are also not familiar with the system.

Most of the solar energy projects in the country are in the remote rural areas served by nongovernment organizations and the government. About 30,000 sitios, or small villages, in the country, do not have electricity, say some lawmakers.

One example of a solar energy project in rural areas is the the Alliance for Mindanao Off-Grid Renewable Energy Program (Amore), which has been providing electricity to towns outside the grid since 2002, using renewable energy sources like solar and small-scale hydropower.

Amore is helping the government achieve 90-percent household electrification by 2017. To date, it has energized more than 12,000 households in over 400 barangays in Mindanao.

Amore links local cooperatives with renewable energy suppliers and helps towns, which are at least 7 kilometers away from the nearest electric post, fund their electrification projects.

Solar kits prices dip

But the time will come when the country will have to switch to renewable energy and Filipinos will then have to embrace the sun, Saño warned.

He said 2011 is the best time for the country to go full-steam ahead with solar power as prices for the kits are dropping and new investors are coming in.

After seeing the destruction wrought by typhoons like “Ondoy,” “Pepeng,” “Basyang” and “Juan,” Filipinos have become more aware of the damaging effects of climate change and are therefore more compelled to support measures that would lower carbon emissions, he said.

“People now understand it. We know that the reason for climate change is the use of fossil fuels, coal plants and the burning of oil. The important thing is for the government to link the solution with the problem,” Saño said.

He noted that the Philippines could experience more power outages next year because of stronger storms expected with the coming of La Niña, a weather phenomenon characterized by an abnormal cooling of ocean temperatures bringing unprecedented precipitation rains and strong typhoons in its wake.

The country last experienced La Niña in 2007, which brought heavy rain and storms that caused massive landslides in the eastern parts of the country.

Looming power crisis
Another reason for solar power to take off is the looming power crisis in Luzon. Saño said residents of Luzon residents may have to endure power outages starting in 2011.

The island, where much of the important economic activity is concentrated, is growing at a rate which its present energy supply cannot match, Saño said.

Alan Ortiz, former president of the National Transmission Corp., said recently that demand for power in Luzon is fast outpacing its generating capacity. He noted that the private sector needs funding for 8,000 megawatts.

If people don’t conserve energy or embrace alternative sources, Luzon’s problem could worsen, Saño said.

People should not expect the building of new power plants to immediately solve the impending power crisis, as such projects are capital-intensive and often take at least two years to complete, he said.

Hence, the best way for households to obtain energy without burdening the grid is to invest in solar energy systems, he said.

Saño said the government is keen to pursue all kinds of renewable energy projects. Investors, he noted, are ready to enter the Philippine energy market after Congress approved the Renewable Energy Act of 2008.

“The government is very keen on pursuing renewables. Energy Secretary Jose Almendras is in serious conversation with renewable energy investors,” said Saño.

What investors have been waiting for are the feed-in tariffs, the rates at which they will be paid for the renewable energy they produce, he said.

Once this is in place—the rates could be released in 2011—renewable energy players would come in, he said.

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