We live in a world moving online more and more every day. Working from home on your laptop is a norm, and so is being able to order nearly anything you want off the internet. Almost everyone in Metro Manila has a smartphone—and the chief complaint for many is that their connection is too slow.
That said, it becomes very easy to forget that many in the Philippines still do not have access to the internet. In fact, millions of Filipinos live literally off the grid, without access to stable and reliable electricity.
Take, for instance, the islands of Lahuy, Haponan, and Quinalasag in Camarines Sur. All three islands—blessed with white-sand beaches, secluded coves, and beautiful sandbars—are only accessible by boat from the towns of Caramoan and Garchitorena. In turn, these towns are over four hours away from the closest major city, Naga.
This far off the coast, none of these communities and their estimated 14,000 residents are connected to the main Luzon power grid, meaning that access to electricity has never been reliable. For the past few years, National Power Corporation (NPC), through the local electric cooperative, CASURECO IV, has been providing power to the islands through diesel generators, which were expensive to operate. As a result, residents received 8 to 12 hours of electricity a day, at most.
For the residents of Lahuy, Haponan, and Quinalasag, the lack of electricity meant that the islands’ fishermen have been unable to preserve their catch. Along with fishing, these communities’ main sources of livelihood are rice farming and copra production.
Powered by good
Soon enough, CASURECO IV waived its right to provide electricity for these islands. Faced with a huge hole in its plan of electrifying the entire country, the Department of Energy included the islands in its Qualified Third Party (QTP) program and invited private companies to submit bids to supply power.
“That’s how we found out about these places,” says Martin Lacdao, Business Development Officer of FP Island Energy Corporation, a microgrid company that is part of Lopez-owned First Philippine Holdings (FPH).
It was one thing to learn about Lahuy, Haponan, and Quinalasag—and something else entirely for FP Island Energy to actually build the infrastructure to power these islands. “After the regulatory approvals were obtained, actual construction and installation only started in March 2020, right at the start of the lockdown due to the pandemic,” explains Lacdao. “Because of the quarantine, delivering materials to the islands and moving personnel to the project sites was a challenge. As a result, construction was fully completed only in the first quarter of 2021.”
But how do you power three islands so far off from the coast? FP Island Energy’s solution was to build one of the Philippines’ first hybrid microgrid systems—that is, a power generation and distribution system built to serve a specific area using multiple both renewable energy and conventional sources of energy.
To ensure electricity 24/7, FP Island’s hybrid system uses renewable energy from solar energy and batteries while augmenting these with back-up diesel generators. The solar PV system provides energy throughout the day when the sun is shining. They also charge the batteries during the day time. At dusk or on cloudy days, the batteries take over. If the batteries are discharged or if there isn’t enough sunlight, diesel generators kick in to provide power.
“FP Island Energy also uses a smart controller system,” adds Lacdao. “This allows a smooth supply of power when the power system switches between power sources such as when we switch from solar to batteries.”
On top of its hybrid microgrid system, FP Island has also rolled out a prepaid metering system not unlike the one telecommunications networks use to allow customers to top up their mobile credits. This makes it easier for the consumers to pay for their electricity and also allows them to monitor their electricity usage and adjust their budgets.
Let there be light
After constructing its hybrid microgrid systems, FP Island got final regulatory approval to operate their power generation stations just in time for the holidays in December 2021.
“People were very happy when we finally turned on the power,” says Lacdao. “It was like a fiesta with children running around the streets yelling , ‘May ilaw na kami!’”
Lahuy, Haponan, and Quinalasag have had stable power and electricity for a little over three months, and FP Island has already observed changes in lifestyles on the three islands. There has been a steady rise of residents installing more lights at home and finally being able to use their televisions even during the daytime. People have also been purchasing more appliances like refrigerators, freezers, and computers.
The constant supply of energy also opens more opportunities. Fishermen will be able to chill their catch to preserve them better and allow them to sell more fish in the markets with minimum spoilage. Meanwhile, students will be able to reliably connect to the Internet and learn more to improve their own opportunities in the future.
“But, more than this, we expect the people to start making investments to tap into the tourism market in the area,” explains Lacdao. Given that Lahuy is already a fixture on many island hopping itineraries in an area known for its picturesque beaches, it’s a lucrative industry that the residents can fully participate in. “It's not far-fetched to think that some enterprising residents are already planning to put up tourist lodging houses or small resorts since they can now host visitors to the islands and have them enjoy modern amenities. If I recall, this is exactly how places like Boracay started.”
As the world continues to move online, it’s become clear that having a constant supply of energy is no longer a privilege: it’s a need. It improves the quality of life, and opens doors to new livelihood opportunities for more people all over the country. Lahuy, Haponan, and Quinalasag are just examples of how power can be used for good. As the government brings to implement a new law promoting microgrids across the country, FP Island has a new runway to take off from, and continue to be at the forefront of electrifying remote communities in the Philippines.