MANILA — For the last 5 decades, members of the Dumagat-Remontado tribe living in Brgy. Laiban, Tanay, Rizal have been without electricity.
Located at the foot of the majestic Sierra Madre mountain range, Sitios Magata and Manggahan had remained unconnected to the Philippines' power grid due to their remote location and the threat of flooding with the construction of the then proposed Laiban Dam.
As soon as the sun set, residents of the two sitios had to halt their livelihood activities and children had to stop studying - unless their household could afford a generator set or had received a home solar power system.
The communities’ need for electricity became urgent when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many Filipino children to undergo blended learning through printed modules and online classes last year.
The already complicated energy situation in the sitios worsened when Typhoon Ulysses struck Luzon in November 2020 and completely damaged a bridge connecting the sitios.
In January this year, non-government organization Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, climate advocacy group 350 Pilipinas and the local Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Pantawid Pamilya Team turned over 3 solar TekPaks and 3 NIWA solar power systems to the two communities.
Arturo Tahup, Associate for Community Resilience of the (ICSC), said they and their partner organizations decided to extend help after hearing about what happened.
"In terms of need for energy, clearly (they’re) off-grid. In terms of impact ni Quinta, Rolly, Ulysses, (it was) clear. Kita na wasak 'yung tulay. Inanod. Tapos iyong mga riverbanks at ibang mga bahay naanod din,” Tahup said, referring to successive storms that struck last year.
(In terms of need for energy, clearly they’re off-grid. In terms of impact of typhoons Quinta, Rolly, Ulysses, it was clear. Their bridge crumbled and was swept away by the river. The riverbanks and houses were also devastated.)
“The objective is to provide humanitarian renewable energy via the Tekpaks to Dumagat-Remontado community who for a long time are suffering from electricity poverty,” Tahup said of their Solar Scholars Training Program.
The 3 solar TekPaks or portable solar-powered generators given to Magata and Manggahan were made and donated by 350 Pilipinas volunteers and Typhoon Yolanda survivors from Leyte and Eastern Samar.
The survivors, who experienced the negative effects of climate change when Typhoon Yolanda killed more than 6,000 people in the Philippines in 2013, were “solar scholars” trained by the ICSC.
Solar-powered generators provided by the organizations and the scholars allowed residents of Magata and Manggahan to access cheaper electricity for their lights, mobile phones and other essential appliances. They can also power medical equipment such as nebulizers given by ICSC and the other groups.
ICSC said the tribe’s children benefited since the new power source enabled them to access electronics needed for remote learning.
The 370 households of Sitios Magata and Manggahan are among the more or less 2 million households in the Philippines that are “unenergized.”
According to Department of Energy Director Mario Marasigan, most of their unserved households are in Mindanao, but there are also some in Luzon and Visayas.
“Sila ay unviable areas. Nasa last mile of energization tayo. Ito na 'yung talagang mahirap sa pinakamahirap (na abutin),” he told ABS-CBN News in a video call.
(They are in unviable areas. The last mile of energization. These are the areas that are really, really hard to reach.)
Marasigan said that while their varied strategies in rural electrification had allowed them to energize off-grid areas, it doesn’t help that the country’s population keeps growing.
“We have already achieved 98% ng ating rural electrification at kung ico-consider 'yung 2015 census, 'yung 2%, 300,000 na lang (ang walang kuryente),” he said.
(We have already achieved 98% of our rural electrification and if we consider the 2015 census, the 2% without electricity is just 300,000.)
But their 2015 targets increased because of new sitios and additional households.
The energy official said besides the challenge of energizing islands in an archipelago, they also have to deal with areas devastated by calamities and conflict.
“Ang private sector hindi pumapasok because unviable, walang kikitain,” he admitted, explaining that it is unattractive for distribution companies to connect to the grid a sitio that is 10 kilometers away when there are only 10 houses to be connected.
(Private sector does not want to go into some places because it is unviable and there is no profit.)
Marasigan said that in some cases, renewable energy would be the only solution since it does not need to be connected to the power grid.
However, there are sustainability concerns.
He said even if they train people to maintain the system, trainees end up using what they learn to find work elsewhere. Some communities are also unable to raise money to replace components or batteries.
Marasigan said this is why the DOE is now tapping distribution utilities to implement renewable energy solutions and charge corresponding fees to keep the solar systems maintained.
The alternative is what the ICSC is already doing: empowering and enabling communities to maintain and even expand their solar systems.
Tahup said this is why they only donate solar TekPaks to communities supported by strong organizations. For Magata and Manggahan, these are associations headed by tribal leaders.
The point of the program, Tahup said, is to teach residents to maintain and make more solar systems instead of just giving them technology that may not be sustained in untrained hands.
ICSC technical officer Glinly Alvero, who helps train the solar scholars, was a typhoon survivor himself.
Alvero was staying at a friend’s house in Tacloban City as Typhoon Yolanda ravaged the city. Like many residents, he lost friends to a typhoon that is now believed to have been exacerbated by climate change.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said as he recalled how he started volunteering for environmental groups after the disaster. He said it was only then that he realized the importance of renewable energy and how its promotion could help address climate change.
The emission of greenhouse gases, brought about by human activities such as the use of dirty energy sources, has been linked to climate change. Besides extreme weather events, climate change has also been linked to drought and sea-level rise.
Alvero said helping people build and appreciate renewable energy systems had become his purpose in life.
He said their focus now is to find locally-available parts for the Solar TekPaks, allowing communities to easily source parts for repairs or upgrades.
Among the groups that Alvero and the other volunteers helped were residents of Sulu-an Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar. As the island has already upgraded its solar set-up, the residents were able to donate their original Solar TekPak to the Dumagat-Remontado tribe in Rizal.
Video via ICSC
Tahup said the success story of Sulu-an, which now has majority of its households using their own solar home systems, provides a blueprint for unenergized communities.
After addressing basic needs for lighting and education, ICSC is hoping to support Magata and Manggahan in utilizing solar energy for livelihood. This has already been achieved by Sulu-an, which uses solar energy to keep the community’s daily fish catch frozen.
ICSC reported how Sulu-an’s all-women’s group Sulong Sulu-an uses solar lights to bake bread and solar-powered speakers to hold Zumba exercises.
To reach this level of climate resilience, the ICSC taught the tribal leaders of Magata and Manggahan to set a fee — albeit lower than the P15 per charge fee set by private individuals — for those using the community’s charging stations.
The money saved up the organization will allow the sitios to maintain and even upgrade their solar set-ups in just a few years. And in due time, it can even cover compensation for the solar scholars who are responsible for maintaining the system.
The ICSC believes that with the right tools, training and outlook, sitios can finally thrive, their solar set-ups not just providing light but also opportunities for education and livelihood.