AsianScientist (Feb. 11, 2016) – The Philippine national flag, known as Three Stars and a Sun, features a golden-yellow sun with eight sun rays, each representing a province in the Philippines.
This symbolism could not be more powerfully felt than when talking to solar expert Ms. Tetchi Cruz-Capellan, CEO of Philippine renewable energy provider SunAsia Energy Inc. and founder of the Philippine Solar Power Alliance (PSPA). She first became acquainted with solar power as the country director of a rural electrification project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
As one of the more mature forms of renewable energy technologies available today, solar power is in the midst of a transition from humble rooftop systems that provide power in the single digit kilowatt-hour scale, to industrial-sized solar farms that provide solar power in the megawatt-hour scale.
We caught up with Ms. Cruz-Capellan at the sidelines of the Power & Electricity World Asia 2015 conference, which took place from May 5 to 7, 2015 in Singapore.
What do you find most rewarding about your work in bringing solar energy to the Philippines?
It is very satisfying and fulfilling to have a home owner tell you, “My bill went down this month because of solar.” One of the important things in doing solar projects is that you can build it fast. If I am a household and I need to save on electricity because my bill is going up, I can do something about it. I can put a solar panel on my roof and in a matter of two weeks, experience savings as a result of the solar panel on my roof.
At the utilities scale, what is really exciting is seeing big farms rise in the middle of a barren piece of land that are able to give clean energy to the local area. You can see the awe in their faces when people see solar panels in the farm [generating power] at the size of a megawatt for the first time; it makes them very curious about how that small piece of panel generates electricity.
People who live in the barangays (villages) face many difficulties. Why should we prioritize energy security over clean water and improved farming techniques?
When I was still was with the US government and doing rural electrification, we did a survey asking people to list down the three most important things they needed in their villages. Though water was number one, electricity was the second most important priority.
For women, electricity enables them to nurse their children better. For example, when the babies are sick and it happens at night, if they have electricity, they are able to attend to their health and medical requirements—simple things like getting the bottle or dispensing medicine. Without electricity, you have to get a kerosene [lamp] which poses a very high risk because kerosene emits very dangerous fumes and can cause fires.
In terms of jobs, electricity enables farmers to use the nighttime to process their harvest. For example, crops like corn are harvested in morning. With light, the farmers are now able to process it at night—removing the corn from the cob and selling it for a higher price. Those are some of the small things that solar contributes to when it is used for electrification in the rural areas.
What can the Philippine government do to support the uptake of solar technologies?
One is to remove the uncertainty [at the policy level]. The law to increase renewable energy doesn’t say how many megawatts, when you have to install it, how much to install it for. These details need to be spelled out in the policy framework.
What the government needs to do is to be more predictable and plan better. They need to be more strategic; they need to have a ten-year plan for renewables and a long-term view. Setting goals and doing a roadmap is important; so is getting the private sector to be your partner in that roadmap. This enables the government, together with the private sector, to go to the bank and the investors and say, “This is our policy, this is our target, this is what we want to do.”
The problem is that the politics get in the way. Every six years you have a new president, so there are new leaders who are not too solar-friendly or not too renewable-friendly.
But I believe this is a transition that we have to go through—once the ecosystem is in place, it is irreversible. We are seeing before our eyes a transition to a new ecosystem. That is why all of these uncertainties are happening. Even the Internet had to go through a period of adjustment, for example the dot com bubble. I believe solar will go through [a similar adjustment].
What more can be done in terms of attracting foreign investors to carry out renewable energy projects in the Philippines?
I think policy makers need to realize that despite the temporary fluctuations (the recent drop in oil prices worldwide), the price of gas and oil will only continue to rise. Policy makers need to accept that fossil fuels are really a limited resource and that the price of those resources is fueled by politics, such as whether there is a war in the Middle East.
How much can you extract from a finite source? The sun, on the other hand, has been around for billions of years. In comparison, fossil fuels are dead. Unless policy makers realize that, they will continue to subsidize it. I think that is really the challenge.
How did you go from rural electrification projects to joining SunAsia Energy and founding PSPA?
I was hired by the US government to be the country director of the rural electrification project under the Department of Agriculture. The electrification project was not really far from agriculture because it’s still in the rural sector. The difference is that we were dealing with solar which involves engineering, a hard science, unlike agriculture, which is biological science, a different field altogether.
But what made the transition easier for me was the fact that I was not dealing with megawatt-sized power-plants, but small solar systems that you would put up on the roof of a poor household who only needs light. In a way, the rural electrification project provided me with an education of how the technology works and how it benefits people on a small scale.
When the renewable energy law was passed and the implementing rules were approved, I knew that it was time to move to the commercial side of renewables. So I left rural electrification work, having understood the technology and been a part of the drafting committee for the Renewable Energy Law of 2008, the Feed-in Tariff Rules of 2012, and the Net Metering Rules of 2013. I knew the rules, and so it was easier for me to go into solar. At that time there was no experts of solar… none!
There were very few of us who were studying and starting; no one was dominant over the other. We had to organize the alliance and work together. If I didn’t do it, somebody else would; it was just a matter of time. I saw the benefits of solar in the islands, I saw how it changed the lives of people in the provinces. I knew solar would be good for the economy and for the energy sector. So there was no doubt in my mind and I was convinced that setting up PSPA was the right path to take.
Could you tell us more about SunAsia’s latest projects?
We do utility scale, megawatt sizes—large, commercial farms. We are currently doing four projects together: 50 MW, 40 MW, 30 MW and 20 MW. These projects will not be in rural areas but just outside major cities because the land is cheaper outside the city with more space for solar farms.
Most recently, SunAsia Energy has collaborated with a consortium of European investors, led by Urbasolar of France, who plan to invest nine billion Philippine peso (~US$202 million) into 100 MW worth of projects, beginning with the 30 MW solar power station in Victoria, Negros Occidental.
What are some of the latest solar technologies that you’re most excited about?
I think that the technology we should be excited about is storage, batteries. Solar power would really take off if we had better and less expensive batteries. But I think it’s only a matter of time—remember, just a decade ago we never expected batteries to power our phones and laptops in the way they do today. There were problems initially, but scientists and researchers solved them.
And once the storage issue is resolved, then solar becomes base-load—we don’t need to dispatch power only in the morning, we can dispatch at night. And therefore if that happens, we can bid farewell to the grid.
What are the hurdles before solar technologies can be widely implemented everywhere?
One problem is that there are too many panel manufacturers, some good, a lot bad. Also, the value of a well-made solar panel has not really sunk into the consumer. You can offer to install solar for a dollar and another will offer to install it for 20 cents. But the consumer doesn’t understand the difference in the engineering between the two and only decides based on price. So what is the barrier? I would say it is the standardization of components and different technology standards.
Do you think the Philippines will take the lead in the shift to renewable energy?
At the moment, the Philippines is doing well but it is not yet a world leader. Among the emerging economies, Thailand is still the leader—their installation target is 2 GW. We’re only one-fourth of that for solar. So really, we have to be more aggressive.
We’ve had experience in geothermal energy since the 1970s and we’re number one next to the US. We are also strong in hydroelectric and wind power. But we’re not quite there yet in the solar sector.
Rather than manufacturing, I think we will be the installers of the world. Our strength is manpower: we’re the manpower of the region, we provide services to the region. So I think that’s where we will most likely be good—designing, engineering, installation, evaluating, business modeling, but not manufacturing. We have not yet proven our leadership in that respect. We’ll leave [manufacturing] to China, they’re better at that.
What can developing nations learn from the Philippines in terms of its successes in solar?
Well, build first! We’re the only country and geographical area that built first before being issued a purchase agreement. Nowhere in the whole renewable energy space will you find that policy. Because it’s very high risk, and yet large scale megawatt plants are being built right now.
This article was first published in the print version of Asian Scientist Magazine, January 2016.
To read more, subscribe to Asian Scientist Magazine in print and receive four issues of Asian Scientist Magazine delivered directly to your mailing address for 12 months, inclusive of taxes and postage.