How sustainable are solar power aid projects in the PH?

MANILA, Philippines – “Finally!” was the first thing students at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) in Laguna said after solar panels were installed in their dormitories last August 26.

Since Typhoon Glenda (international name Rammasun) damaged the school’s electrical lines in July, the students of the country’s only public arts high school school have had to do their homework by flashlight.

The 780-watt solar panels placed on the roof of each dormitory now power light bulbs in 26 rooms. The students also now have solar-powered electric fans and cellular phone chargers.

For Frederick Epistola of Solar Pilipinas, it’s just another day of bringing light to an energy-strapped community. Through his advocacy Solar Power Initiative or SPIN Project, his group has installed solar panels for the Mangyans in Mindoro Oriental and communities in Leyte and Eastern Samar devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda.

But his group is just one of the numerous solar power aid-givers in the Philippines.

Especially since Typhoon Yolanda, solar power advocates and international aid agencies have come in droves to supply the energy gap following the massive destruction of power lines. (READ: Women inmates make solar-powered lamps for Yolanda shelters)

Their solar power aid projects have supplied everything from single solar panels to solar-powered lanterns to remote communities.

Like the PHSA students, almost all solar power beneficiaries celebrate the installation with hand-clapping, cheering, even tears. But what happens next? How long do the solar panels last without the aid-giving body?

A new study shows that too many solar power aid-givers can lead to unsustainable solar power projects and even failed projects.

Fragmented efforts

A study published last June, as reported by science news portal SciDev, showed how multiple donors in solar power aid “can cause fragmented and uncoordinated efforts, resulting in duplication of projects or failure.”

The author of the study, Jens Marquardt of the Environmental Policy Research Centre in Germany, studied 4 solar power aid projects in remote parts of the Philippines: Isla Verde in Batangas, Guimaras Island in Iloilo, Palawan and Mindanao.

The projects were funded by international donors like the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), UN Development Programme and US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Three of the projects failed mainly due to technical difficulties. The solar power equipment was not maintained properly, there was a lack of trained maintenance personnel or funds were not provided for the purchase of batteries when the old ones were spent.

While following a group installing solar power in Yolanda-struck villages in Eastern Samar, this reporter saw a solar panel donated by an Australian aid agency broken and unused in an island-village in Guiuan.

The villagers said the solar panel was installed in 1998. After it was damaged during another typhoon, nobody came back to fix it. The locals themselves were not taught how to repair it.

Beyond the study, another possible reason for the technical challenges is the incompatibility of the technology with the environment they are installed in, said Epistola.

He said some donated solar panels burst while charging because the panels from other countries are not designed for the heat in the Philippines.

Systems that use high-tech solar batteries also fail without a concrete replacement plan. There is still no steady supply of affordable solar batteries in the Philippines, said Epistola. His group uses conventional batteries that are more accessible and more familiar to beneficiaries.

Marquardt also noted there was a lack of communication among the donor agencies. One donor was not able to share their experience with the next donor which could have prevented the failure of the more recent project.

Much was left to be desired in terms of communication and coordination between the donor agency and Philippine government, according to the study. In most cases, the two parties were not on the same page when it came to expectations and project objectives.

Because of this, the two parties lost the opportunity to share their experiences with each other and come up with ways to save the project or better prepare for future projects.

Snatching success from defeat

Marquardt concluded that successful solar power projects are those which can be sustained by the beneficiary community.

Epistola said his group knows this only too well. That’s why before turning over a solar power system, he usually gives beneficiaries a “hands-on” seminar on how to install and maintain it.

“For example, the Mangyans of Mindoro, they disassembled the system before the arrival of a storm and they assembled it back after the storm,” he told Rappler.

SOLAR TO THE RESCUE. Frederick Epistola installs solar panels in student dormitories of Philippine High School for the Arts in Laguna. Photo courtesy of Frederick Epistola

SOLAR TO THE RESCUE. Frederick Epistola installs solar panels in student dormitories of Philippine High School for the Arts in Laguna.

Photo courtesy of Frederick Epistola

Fitting the solar power project into the culture and lifestyle of the beneficiaries and not the other way around is another determinant of sustainability, he said.

That’s why for a fishing village in San Pablo, Laguna, his group gave rechargeable lamps and a floating solar charging station instead of installing solar panels on roofs.

“During the wee hours of dawn when the fishermen go to the lake, they bring the solar lamps with them for work and during the night, they use the lamps to light their homes,” he explained.

Sense of ownership

Michael Abundo, the founder of another solar power aid group called Project Enkindle, thinks creating a sense of ownership in the beneficiary community is another way forward.

His group installed around 30 solar power systems in Eastern Visayas following Yolanda. All of these systems are still working, thanks, he said, to the stewardship mechanism his group designed.

All villages that receive a solar power system were asked to choose a local who will act as a “steward.” The steward signs a Memorandum of Agreement with Project Enkindle, committing to protect the solar panel, properly maintain it and make sure it is not used for profit.

But Abundo said a third of the solar panels reported inverter damage mainly because locals plugged too many appliances or used the panel to charge more cellular phones than it can handle.

“Perhaps the deployed systems should have come with simple reminder cards as to the Do’s and Don’ts for the use of the system,” he told Rappler.

Another feature that sets Project Enkindle apart is its scale-up phases. The basic solar panel systems now in the communities will soon be replaced by higher and higher capacities of solar panel systems. The third and last phase will be a solar-powered micro-grid that gives the communities independence from larger, fossil-fuel-based grids.

So instead of leaving the solar panels, Abundo’s group continues to check up on them and upgrade the systems.

In fact, one of the group’s volunteers will go on a monitoring mission from September to October to visit all the systems they installed, said Abundo.

It’s interesting to note that Marquardt’s study concentrated on international aid agencies. Perhaps a new study can shed light on solar power aid projects led by local groups. – Rappler.com

Solar panels image via Shutterstock

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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