People smile at the sun in Suluan, Eastern Samar

By Elmer Recuerdo 

SULUAN ISLAND, Eastern Samar—The weather is unpredictable. The clear blue sky does not guarantee a whole day of sunshine just as the thick clouds in heaven do not tell a long rainfall.

But while many frown on the scorching heat of the sun, here in this island, the sun always brings a smile to its hundreds of residents. A sunny day means it is time for the residents to bring out their solar panels and get ready with their mobile phones and other electronic gadgets that need to be charged.

“The sun is very important to us because this is where we get the electricity needs of the community,” said Anecito Loyola, a village official and a trained solar scholar. A solar scholar is a community leader who underwent training on the basics of solar technology and how it can be applied, especially in off-grid communities, conducted by the non-governmental Institute on Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC).

When the government doled out P30,000 emergency shelter assistance for families whose houses were totally destroyed by Supertyphoon Haiyan (local code name Yolanda), Loyola immediately invested this on a solar-home system and bought a solar panel, a battery and a power controller—all for P10,000. His investment can now afford him to watch satellite television and sing on a karaoke while having at least four bulbs running at the same time.

“At night, this is very much needed by the students in their studies,” he said. Loyola also gets the advantage in business, as his sari-sari store remains open at night while other stores have already closed.

ICSC, in partnership with the United Kingdom-based charity Christian Aid and the local women’s organization Sulong Suluan, recently distributed the 49 Niwa solar-home systems. Each came with three 300-lumen LED lamps, a 9-inch table fan, a solar panel and a battery.

The solar-home system is not only capable of lighting three LED lamps for 12 hours but can also be used to run a table fan and charge mobile phones. Charging of mobile phones is advised, though, to be done during the day, when there is ample sunlight, and not at nighttime, when the stored power can be put in better use for lighting.

Suluan Island is the country’s easternmost island and the southernmost village of the three provinces that comprise Samar Island. The island is about 30 kilometers from its town center, the municipality of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, which is also the southernmost town of mainland Samar. When the sea is calm during Habagat, the island can be reached after a three-hour ride on a motorized fishing boat. But when the water is rough, which happens more often than not, travel time is between four to five hours. A boat leaves Guiuan at noon, the only passenger trip in a day, and travels back to the town center early morning of the following day. First-time visitors to the island will not miss the tall electric posts put up last year by the Eastern Samar Electric Cooperative (Esamelco), whose concession extends to off-grid barangays of Eastern Samar, like Suluan. Residents said there was electricity on the island using a diesel-run generator before the whole system was destroyed and posts toppled down by Yolanda.

But the new posts are there just waiting for an electric source to distribute to households. The National Power Corp. (Napocor) and Esamelco conducted a consultation in the barangay last year for an electrification project under the Small Power Utilities Group (SPUG) before the electric posts were put up. However, nothing has been heard from them since then.

“We were told that it will operate this year but I doubt if it will happen,” Barangay Councilor Lesario Badar Jr. said. He said the neighboring Homonhon Island, which is composed of four barangays and with a much larger population, remains without electricity even when their electric posts were put up much earlier than in Suluan Island. “Definitely, SPUG project in Homonhon will come first before us.” SPUG is one of the functional groups of Napocor mandated to perform missionary electrification function and responsible for providing power generation and its associated power-delivery systems in areas not connected to the main transmission system, such as Suluan Island. This mandate is based on Republic Act 9136, otherwise known as the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, or the Epira law.

The missionary-electrification function is funded from revenues derived through sales of electricity in missionary areas and from the Universal Charge for Missionary Electrification (UCME) collected from all electricity end-users as determined by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC).

But Suluan residents are not too ecstatic about the prospects of another diesel generator to serve the energy needs of the households.

Previous experience with the generator isn’t enticing with several instances of engine malfunction that left houses without electricity for a number of days. There were also days when all sea travels were not allowed and fuel to run the generators could not be brought in time. Adding reason for their anxiety is the spiraling cost of fuel due to increasing gasoline cost in the world market and the weakening of the peso in recent months.

“Solar is more important than SPUG because you don’t have to pay a monthly fee,” said Badar, referring to solar-home systems that many households are now using. He added it will be more beneficial for the residents of Suluan if SPUG will put up more solar panels to energize the whole island.

He said many residents may be reluctant to pay the high cost of energy the power utility may provide, especially that most of the households already have solar panels and are getting their electricity for free. This will impact the viability of SPUG project in maintaining its operation.

Despite its relatively small population, Suluan Island has an increasing demand for electricity not only to run domestic appliances but also for the school and cold storage for the abundant fish that locals catch every day.

Some great improvements have been made on its integrated school—the once makeshift classrooms are now made of typhoon-resistant school buildings courtesy of international humanitarian groups. All the classrooms are complete with fluorescent lights and electric fun, amenities that have never been used due to absence of electricity in the school. Some parents of the schoolchildren would laughingly narrate how the school is forced to run its generator set just to print a school report.

Considered the biggest suppliers of fish and other seafood in Eastern Visayas, fishermen of Suluan are also in dire need of a cold storage to avoid spoilage of their catch. The women’s organization Sulong Suluan, with the assistance of ICSI, is already planning to put up a store complete with a solar freezer, where they will store products from their meat-processing livelihood program.

Arturo Tahup, project coordinator of ICSC’s RE-Charge Pilipinas, said the potential of the island is huge that it cannot be addressed by family-owned generator sets and even by a SPUG project. Many island barangays in Samar on SPUG have generators running only from 6 p.m. until midnight while many of the energy needs happen during the day like in school, barangay hall and church.

Tahup said one viable option is to create a micro-grid, like a mini-solar farm, in the island that will also make use of the electric posts that were recently put up.

“It has to be managed by a power utility. If Esamelco will not take the lead, it may choose to waive its franchise for new utilities or investors to come in. Even the local government unit can take this,” he said. “If the electric coop has an interest in renewable energy, they can implement this and we will just support,” he said.

Originally published in the Business Mirror