Why Mindanao is key to the clean energy future of the Philippines

I grew up a child of the energy industry in the 80s when Mindanao was frontier lands for electrification. I understood from a very young age how precious electricity was because where I lived, not everyone had it.

And yet four decades on, still, not everyone has it. The Philippines fell short in achieving 100 percent electrification and Mindanao sadly has the lowest number of homes and communities with access to modern energy services among the country’s three major island groups. But in this tragedy lies the opportunity. And for rural electrification, it can scale up quickly. 

The existing limitations in grid infrastructure present no hindrance if plans for Mindanao’s energy development deprioritize building utility-scale power plants requiring large transmission towers and advance distributed and decentralized clean energy systems, which better cater to the small pockets of unelectrified communities dotting the landmass. Renewable energy mini- and micro-grids powered by solar, wind, or small hydro can be deployed in these areas at less cost per kilowatt over time and without system losses from typical legacy grid-distributed power. Since these sources produce electricity without carbon emissions compared to diesel and other fossil fuels, they are evidently healthier for the people they serve.

­I know this is possible because we have started to do it. From a family of indigenous Mindanaoans with a deep history in its energy sector, we launched the first commercial solar service provider in the region. While much of the interest in solar originate from cities, our activities serving rural communities—whether for off-grid street lighting, farming irrigation, community water supply, or simply home electrification—have been consistent, even progressing.

They have also proven the most rewarding. Stories from our team are aplenty. In one instance, installing solar home systems in a B’laan community in the hinterlands of South Cotabato, where flipping a light switch for the first time inside their homes was met with great joy and celebration, made the team’s long difficult hike to reach the area worth every kilometer.

We are further testing our models, in partnership with technical experts in the local academe and cleantech start-ups within the country and abroad, to organize and connect for high-functioning commercially viable clean energy mini-grids in the hopes of providing economic and education opportunities and steering away communities from conflict and other poverty-related challenges.

We know we’re not the only ones. The initiatives may dance between development and peace to profit motives but also, curiously, for pride. The average Mindanaon adult took pleasure in belonging to a region where majority of the electricity came from clean and renewable sources. The recognition that the power passing through gridlines into homes was mostly generated by Mindanao’s great rivers and the country’s tallest volcano, was prevalent.

In the last few decades, however, coal plants have proliferated and the region’s educated and political elite is cognizant of the fact that this dirty technology already discarded in other progressive economies should have a diminished role in Mindanao’s future energy landscape. Reclaiming the throne of a renewable energy-based power grid will provide a sense of urgency and renewed pride to the region.

Pair that with the knowledge of climate science and solutions and we have a formula for the success of the sustainable energy agenda in the Southern Philippines.

This is by no means saying the work ahead is easy. The region could use some help from the finance sector, who in turn could get some push from policymakers. But today, a clean energy future in Mindanao is plausible and welcome. The technology is accepted. The people are ready. And attaining sustainability for this region’s energy system might just be the nudge to achieving a clean energy future for the entire Philippines.     

Author: Philline Donggay