renewable energy

[OPINION] Alternative energy for a climate-challenged Philippines

Kelvin S. Rodolfo
[OPINION] Alternative energy for a climate-challenged Philippines

Rhaydz Barcia/Rappler

'This piece is devoted to everyone looking for ways not only to generate their own electricity, but to make no carbon dioxide in doing so'

The following is the 41st in a series of excerpts from Kelvin Rodolfo’s ongoing book project “Tilting at the Monster of Morong: Forays Against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and Global Nuclear Energy.

For more than a year, Rappler has published my Forays, written in the isolation and spacetime that COVID provided. Now we are where we had planned to finish, by assessing how the Philippines can empower itself with alternative energy while coping with climate change.

It’s September of 2022, my 86th year.  The book is ending harmoniously with the flow of events: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is starting his presidency just as my career is winding down.  

Rappler agreed to publish my series as a great favor. It wasn’t certain that I would live long enough to finish the book.  My body is holding up, but deteriorating eyesight is making illustrating difficult, so it’s almost time to conclude it.

We end with three forays on alternative energy for a time when a changing climate is shrinking the living space of a growing population.  My modest suggestions for alternative energy are guided by several principles. 

Decades of natural-hazard research taught me that a country and government with limited resources best protects its people by educating them how and when to evacuate to a prearranged refuge, far better than building shelters where people have no livelihood and are exposed to infectious diseases.

Similarly, the government should help people without electricity to generate it themselves, rather than transmit it to them. Toward that end we should also aim at other goals: counter other environmental impacts of climate change; employ local people; give Filipino ingenuity opportunities to come into play.

This first of three Forays on Philippine alternative energy is devoted to everyone looking for ways not only to generate their own electricity, but to make no carbon dioxide in doing so, as fighters in the global effort to mitigate climate change. 

In 2019 almost five million Filipinos were living away from electricity grids; most of them continue to do so.  They deserve our most immediate attention. Isolated families and barangays can most easily generate their own CO2-free electricity with small-scale renewable sources including solar panels, small wind generators, and small-scale hydro turbines. Generated where needed, it is called distributive energy.

An immediate payback is lowered cost!  Energy produced and used locally avoids transmission costs and losses.  

All coal, oil, natural gas, or (God forbid) nuclear power plants must spend electricity to send it to you.  They produce low-to-medium, 1-20 kilovolt electricity and use “step-up” transformers to elevate it, typically up to 400 kilovolts, to transmit it efficiently over long distance through high-tension power lines. Then, at every neighborhood where the electricity is used, “step-down” transformers convert the high voltage back down, first to medium-voltage lines, and finally down to the 220-volt electricity that enters Philippine homes.

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Of course, some energy is lost during this process, as much as 10-12% during step-up and step-downs. But the power lines lose even more!  Some of the high-voltage electricity is wasted by heating up the transmission wire. The higher the voltage and the farther the electricity travels, the greater this heat loss.  

Besides being cheap, locally-generated electricity has emotional and spiritual paybacks: some genuine control over your own life, and knowing that you are personally engaged in the fight against climate change. 

But making electricity locally is not limited to isolated places!  The choice is not between getting all your electricity from the grid as most people must, or making all you need yourself, like rich people can. Net metering enables you to rely on the grid, but also make as much of your own electricity as you can afford.

 Net-metering electricity from solar panels

Solar power is one of the most attractive alternatives in the Philippines, where the average day has 4.5 to 5 hours of peak sunlight, precisely when air-conditioning is making the greatest demand on the electrical grid.

In 2008 the Philippine Renewable Energy Act enabled homeowners and businesses to install up to 100 kilowatts of solar panels and connect them with “net-metering” to the power grids. What a great idea!  

Solar panels generate direct-current (DC) electricity, which must be “inverted” into the alternating-current (AC) that our appliances use.  Customers are connected to the power grid with two-way current meters.  In times like high noon the panels might make more electricity than a customer is using, and the excess flows to the utility; at night the flow reverses: electricity flows from the utility to the user. “Net” refers to the difference between how much the meter reports the customer contributes to the grid, and how much it gets from it.  Customers who make more than they use are credited or paid for the excess.

But in 2018, rooftop solar was still being held back by cumbersome regulation, outdated administrative practices, and a lack of affordable and accessible financing. At present, more than 80% of Philippine electricity comes from oil and coal; doubtless the providers of those fuels and their friends in government do not welcome solar competition, and hamper it anyway they can.  BNPP advocates may also resist it.  What will the recently-elected administration do?

Wind

Electricity from the wind usually brings to mind fields of towers 300 feet or a hundred meters tall, topped by slowly-spinning rotors of triple blades, each 200 feet or 60 meters long, like the ones of the Bangui array in Ilocos Norte pictured below. In 2020 the typical capacity of such turbines was about 2.75 megawatts. Just to compare, it would take 226 of them to match BNPP’s 621 megawatts.

But smaller wind turbines for individual homes are also available.  Since 2008 my wife and I have used a 2.5-kilowatt unit on our Wisconsin farm. Its blades are less than six feet long, which is why the picture (above, right) needs a closeup. But its output, net-metered together with that of Tith 7 kilowatts of solar panels, meets most of our needs. 

Mini- and micro-hydro

Ours is a mountainous country with many small streams that can be tapped with turbines during rainy seasons. Many of our rivers flow all year.  Rather than damming them, water flowing through turbines emplaced on their beds beside a barangay or village can generate enough electricity for it. 

Ocean waves

The 7,641 Philippine islands have more than 36,000 kilometers of coastline, collectively the world‘s  fifth  longest!  Ocean waves are very energetic, but hard to harness offshore. Let’s try onshore “oscillating water columns” or OWC successfully used in Scotland and Spain.

Offshore, energy is evenly distributed along waves. Nearing shore, however, they first start interacting with the shallow seafloor off a headland, which slows them down before the deeper water off a bay does.  So, they are stretched, lengthened and weakened at bays, but shortened and focused as large, powerful waves at headlands, ideal OWC sites. To avoid the fierce waves during construction, a cavity for the system is dug, separated from the shore by a rampart to remove after the system is installed.   

Waves entering an operating OWC compress the air in the chamber, forcing it to drive a turbine that generates electricity. When the wave recedes, air sucked into the chamber also turns the turbine, making more electricity.  

Our next Foray, “Small is Beautiful,” discusses alternative sources that may surprise you. – Rappler.com

Born in Manila and educated at UP Diliman and the University of Southern California, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo taught geology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1966. He specialized in Philippine natural hazards since the 1980s.

Keep posted on Rappler for the next installment of Rodolfo’s series.

Previous pieces from Tilting at the Monster of Morong:

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