Negros solar farm gears up for DOE renewable energy plan

MANILA, Philippines – Tractors and workers upturn 20 hectares of reddish-brown soil in the heart of sugarcane land in Negros Occidental.

But they aren't prepping the land for agriculture – at least, not in the regular sense of the word. Instead of another sugarcane plantation, the field of reddish-brown earth will become a solar farm, ready to electrify the province in March 2014. (READ: DOE to add more renewable energy in grid by 2014)

Watching over the land's transformation is Mike Airey, a managing director for German investment management group ThomasLloyd. They specialize in renewable energy investments in Asia.

One of their first projects is the San Carlos Solar Farm (SaCaSol) which is set to generate 22 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to power the entire San Carlos City. 

Each upturning of soil is timed to the ticking of a clock because for Airey, getting the solar farm up and running is a race against time.

Among other solar farm projects approved by the Department of Energy, they want to be the first to feed into the national power grid. Under the DOE's renewable energy guidelines, the first 50 megawatts of solar power to electrify will be awarded the coveted feed-in tariff (FiT) which ensures investors a return on investment. 

Investors spend roughly US$ 2 million to generate one megawatt from a solar farm, said Airey. SaCaSol will generate 22 MW. The FiT, through fixed price rates for the generated electricity, guarantees revenue for the solar farm for a period of 20 years.

For solar power, the FiT rate is P9.68 per kilowatt/hour (KPH).

Green energy islands

ThomasLloyd has two more renewable energy plants in San Carlos. A bioethanol plant which produces ethanol gas for cars has been operating since 2005, the first in Southeast Asia. A biopower plant, which generates electricity from sugarcane waste, is under construction and will be ready by 2015. 

LAND OF PROMISE. A solar farm will stand on these 20 hectares of land rented from sugarcane farmers.

Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

When completed, the 3 projects will make San Carlos the first integrated renewable energy zone in the country.

Renewable energy has been gaining ground all over the world because of its promise of less to zero carbon emissions, less air pollution and unlimited supply of raw materials used to generate energy. In comparison, conventional fossil fuel sources like coal, oil and natural gas are limited, dirty and expensive.

But why invest in renewable energy in the Philippines?

It turns out, the Philippines is an ideal location for green energy.

"There's a requirement for a lot of power here. The Philippines is an archipelago so the grid isn't totally connected. Each individual island has got different requirements so there's a lot of reason to invest here for that purpose alone," Airey told Rappler. (READ: Groups to Lacson: Tap renewable energy for Yolanda areas)

In the case of Negros, the island's flat lands receive more than the usual amount of sunlight, a condition which has made the province the sugarcane capital of the country.

Bordered by other islands with higher ground, Negros is protected from the ferocity of storms that batter the Philippines an average of 20 times a year. Though it was one of the areas hit by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), it sustained minimal damage.

In terms of political stability, another factor considered by investors, the Philippines is well-placed.

"Though you have your issues in Mindanao, we don't see that as something that will spread to the rest of the Philippines."

At present, there is only one solar power plant in the Philippines – the one megawatt facility in Cagayan owned by Cepalco (Cagayan Electric Power and Light Company).

Cheaper, more efficient technology

A solar farm harnesses light from the sun to produce energy for households, businesses and infrastructure. Photovoltaic cells in solar panels receive sunlight and convert its energy to electricity.

Such cells are already seen in some calculators. To imagine the San Carlos solar farm, multiply that tiny strip of photovoltaic cells by 35 hectares, the total land area of the farm.

The first phase (20 hectares) will be completed in March. The second, an additional 15 hectares, should feed into the national power grid by June. 

GREEN TECH. Solar panels in boxes wait to be used in San Carlos City.

Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

Though the technology of solar power may sound pricier and more complicated than, say, coal combustion which has powered the world since the 19th century, Airey says solar power is now more cost-effective than it's ever been.

"It's more comparative with fuel sources. The cost of manufacturing has gone down, and the quality of the panels has become greater so the efficiency is greater. So it's cheaper to do and when you include the feed-in tariff, that makes it far more viable."

It's also much faster to build a solar farm, which mostly consists of the solar panels, compared to other conventional energy sources with their boilers, conveyor belts and cooling systems. And as far as maintenance is concerned, you just need to cut the grass and clean the panels every now and then. Panels are replaced every 10 years. (READ: Palawan aims for a 100% renewable energy future)

Airey is convinced that renewable energy is a win-win scenario for everyone involved. Aside from beefing up the power supply of Negros and the country, the solar farm has created and will create more jobs for locals.

"Just building the solar panels, there are over 200 workers here. By next week that will be up to around 350 to 400," he said.

Locals are hired as drivers, land clearers, construction workers and cooks for the other employees of the farm, among other things.

And just as sugarcane plantations sprouted all over Negros after the success of one sugar baron, so will more solar farms operate all over the Philippines after the success of SaCaSol, Airey hopes.

"You will see more companies, more people willing to invest [in solar power] because with SaCaSol, it would be a proven concept." – Rappler.com 

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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