by Lottie Salarda
Originally published in

The use of solar power and other renewable energy sources, like solar or wind, is not common to the people of Eastern Visayas, until typhoon Yolanda hit the region November 2013.

Several international organizations donated solar lamps to families living in tent cities and shanties. The contributions came at the right time—during the spate of power outages in many towns in Leyte province including Tacloban City. Word spread and the people became more curious about power harnessed from sunlight.

Using solar power to light homes made a difference in the lives of many Yolanda survivors fortunate enough to have access to the technology. Most have kept and used the solar lamps even after the total restoration of electricity in typhoon-devastated areas.

Yet is it possible to do more than just distribute lamps, many of which do not appear to have been built to last? Is it also possible—is it desirable—to share with communities the awareness needed to maintain, replicate and even scale up renewable energy applications for vulnerable localities?

It was early last year when officers of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities visited the ruined city. It took them a week of intense discussions to assess the situation and decide on the viability of what seemed to be an ambitious plan then. And they did the installation of a 9.75 kilowatt sustainable transport, solar services and training center that would be named RE-Charge Tacloban.

The construction of the facility took almost six months. Unlike other organizations that help survivors of typhoon Yolanda, the Institute decided their contribution would be for keeps. They opted to take root and remain long after relief and emergency operations concluded.

The RE-Charge project is the organization’s contribution to the government’s call to build back better. Also known as iCSC, the Institute said the task was to “build back better and brighter.”

The facility’s solar array is a hybrid system that provides majority of the juice to power the facility. Once the batteries charged by the sun runs low on energy, the Schnei- der inverter automatically switches to get power from the geothermal-fueled grid. The RE-Charge center runs four electric jeepneys together with two multicabs destroyed by Yolanda and which have since been converted into electricity-powered vehicles. The converted vehicles are a symbol, says iCSC, of Tacloban itself—what was destroyed is now remade into something better.

Last year when typhoon Ruby and Seniang hit the City, the converted multicabs were usedas mobile power sources to help communities in San Jose and Old Road Sagkahan charge mobile phones, radios and rechargeable lamps.

Another milestone recently reached by the project deals with the Solar Scholars training program, which was launched last May. Participants came from climate change survivor communities in Eastern Samar, Northern Samar, Tacloban City, Leyte, Cebu, and Iloilo. Among the scholars was Zenaida Benitez from Bantayan Island in Cebu, a recent graduate of the famous Barefoot College in India. She was one of the 14 women in the Philippines sent to India last year to take up renewable energy studies and technical training.

In the three-day Solar Scholars workshop, participants gained critical insights based on the science of renewable energy and climate change. They were provided a strong grasp of technical and electrical concepts while learning how renewable energy can and must be integrated into disaster preparedness programs and community development strategies. The training was highly interactive. Participants had access to all manner of modular renewable energy devices, including the command control room of the facility and new equipment being developed by the iCSC team.

Most importantly, they gained practical experience in operating the RE-Charge TekPak, a portable community solar system capable of powering laptops and lights, charging cell phones and radios, and powering medical equipment and other community needs.

It is composed of 100-watt solar panels, easy to use instruments panel, (3) LED light bulbs, an inverter and a battery placed inside a water-tight, dust-proof, and shock-proof suitcase.

Officials from the island town of San Vicente in Northern Samar were invited to join the workshop. The town is one of the most geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas in Region 8. It does not have a 24-hour supply of electricity.

Operations of the municipal health office thus greatly affected by the lack of stable supply of electricity, which is only available from 4 in the afternoon to 11 in the evening.

The situation has for too long is a great challenge for the likes of town physician Dr. Nenilyn Francisco, whose job is to help mothers safely deliver their babies becomes truly fraught from 11 p.m. onwards when electricity is no longer available.

Despite the adverse power situation, San Vicente was nonetheless able to record zero maternal deaths since 1976. This was made possible largely through the efforts of their Municipal Health Officers and medical staff. Imagine the things the town would be able to achieve once their health center is solarized by iCSC.

Changes have already taken place, in fact. Thanks to iCSC’s training and the RE-Charge TekPak the town’s officers had brought back, less than 24-hours after the Solar Scholars course had concluded, the TekPak was deployed to power up lights and electric fans to help two mothers successfully deliver two healthy babies.

Though small, iCSC has made a big difference in the lives of many climate change survivors. They not only provided jobs for local Taclobanons, they also gave hope to many communities.

In my 17 months of service in the organization, I saw the birth of hope in the many contributions the organization has made to the struggle against climate change. Their priority is not just vulnerable sectors but to seed new ideas and strategies with innovative approaches.

Their advocacy is certainly one of the best ways of serving the people—in the brightest possible way.

(Lottie Salarda, program anchor and reporter of dyBR in Tacloban City, was on duty when Supertyphoon Yolanda struck and destroyed the radio station, killing two of her colleagues. She has written stories on the suffering of the survivors for the online news portal Interaksyon. Salarda was among the 20 recipients of the SM Foundation’s S.U.P.E.R. Awards for Media.)