ALBAY, Philippines –– In a quiet and small town in Albay, Asia’s oldest geothermal field was discovered 50 years ago.
The geothermal field in Tiwi town has been providing a source of clean and sustainable electricity to various parts of the Philippines, including its birthplace: the Bicol region.
The geothermal field has been also instrumental in the development of Tiwi, which was once Albay’s poorest and remotest town.
According to Mayor Jaime Villanueva, Tiwi transformed from being a sixth-class town to a first-class municipality in 1996. A six-class town has an average annual income of less than P30 million, while a first-class category municipality has an average annual income of more than P90 million.
“Tiwi is now a first-class town with more than P200 million income annually including the internal revenue allotment (IRA),” Villanueva said.
He said the operations of the Tiwi steam fields provide subsidies to 16 villages through the national wealth fund. The fund could be used to lower electricity subsidy by at least 80 percent.
The remaining 20 percent of the national wealth fund supports the development of host communities. The Philippine Geothermal Production Corporation (PGPC), which operates the plant, also provides scholarships to poor but intelligent students.
Like other areas in Albay, farming was the dominant livelihood in the Tiwi. The town’s main products are rice, coconut, and abaca.
Fishing could have also been an additional source of livelihood especially for those living in coastal villages.
In the past, Tiwi town was the home of the so-called “hot springs resorts” and Naglagbong Park area. Fumaroles, and boiling mud pools and lakes drew locals and tourists.
Geothermal has since been considered the biggest industry in Tiwi and a source of local employment PGPC and its business partners are complying with the Tiwi First Policy, which requires businesses to prioritize the employment of Tiwi residents.
Fifty-eight percent of PGPC’s personnel originated from Tiwi, while 62% are currently residing in the town, latest data showed.
Villanueva said the partnership between the local government and the PGPC resulted in the industrialization of their town, thus helping develop the skills of the residents in construction, mechanical, and drilling work.
Birth of geothermal
In 1962, a team from the former Commission on Volcanology, now the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, spearheaded an expedition to Mt. Malinao with the goal to harness the area’s abundant geothermal energy to generate electricity.
The Geothermal Energy, Natural Gas and Methane Gas Law—which promotes and regulates the exploration, development, and utilization of geothermal energy—was enacted in 1967.
It was also in the same year that Dr. Arturo P. Alcaraz and his team lit up an electric bulb using steam-powered electricity coming from Mt. Malinao.
Tiwi’s commercial geothermal operations began in 1979. At present, Tiwi power plant has installed capacity of 234 MW, making it the third largest geothermal facility in the Philippines.
Aside from the Tiwi steam fields, Bicol region is also home to the Bacon-Manito Geothermal Power Plant. Geothermal energy is abundant in the region’s dormant volcanoes.
The geothermal fluid underneath the ground is tapped via wells and is sent through insulated pipelines to primary pressure vessels that separates steam from brine. The steam then travels through insulated steam lines to secondary pressure vessels where it is purified.
The steam delivered to the power plants passes through and rotates steam turbines coupled to generators that generate electricity. Through transformers and power transmission lines, electricity is then distributed to homes, offices and industries.
Unlike power plants run by fossil fuels, geothermal fields have low emission levels.
Geothermal energy represents 13% of the Philippines’ energy mix. Aside from Tiwi, PGPC also runs the Mak-Ban steam field in Laguna.
According to PGPC, about 2.7 to three million homes used power provided by PGPC’s Mak-Ban and Tiwi steam fields in 2020, which accounted for around two-thirds of Luzon’s geothermal energy.
The cumulative gross generation of Tiwi and Mak-Ban reached 142 billion kWh as of September 2021. This is equivalent to 264 million barrels of avoided oil imports, and has helped reduce CO2 emissions by at least 56 billion kilograms.
Guarding the geothermal field
Agta-Tabangnon indigenous peoples have been tapped to protect the area that houses the geothermal field.
Arsenio Condeno, the Agta-Tabangnon tribal chieftain of Joroan, said the presence of the geothermal power plant in the town is advantageous to IPs as their rainforest and secondary forest are being preserved.
“We acquired scientific knowledge through the training of the PGPC and the government. So, we integrate our indigenous practices with these new learnings to improve our survival techniques in times of natural calamities,” Cordeno said.
The geothermal forest reserve covers at least 17,661 hectares of land in the towns of Tiwi and Malinao. Vargas said the forest reserve is also home to many animals like pigs, monkeys, eagles, snakes, and other birds.
“This is a good sign that our biodiversity is still good and protected. In Tiwi, Albay, the biodiversity is still protected due to the presence of geothermal,”
Erwin Vargas, PGPC public affairs supervisor, said the IP community will be tasked to nurture newly-planted trees in the reserve and will be given corresponding payment as guardians of the forest.
PGPC also replanted abaca within the geothermal field to help communities generate income provided that they will not vandalize facilities.
“We invested in comprehensive and integrated high-value programs and partnerships to promote human progress, sustainable development and positive change in our host communities,”
Future of geothermal
A 17-MW binary geothermal power plant is set to rise in the field of Asia’s oldest geothermal energy in 2023.
“This binary is dependent on our supply of brine from our steam generating system. With brine being generated it means that we are still continuously producing steam for the power plants in Tiwi,” Vargas said, adding the corporation is enhancing its existing wells and drilling new wells to produce more steam.
Villanueva, the town mayor, said that during the early years of Tiwi geothermal operations, the plant generated at least 300 MW production. But after 50 years of operation, the generated electricity significantly declined to 115MW.
When asked if the construction of a binary plant will help and boost the power generation in the country specifically in the countryside, Villanueva said the liquid waste or brine will be harnessed and used through the binary facility to produce another source of power before it will be reinjected to the wells.
In 2018, PGPC signed the Geothermal Resources Supply and Service Agreement with AP Renewables Inc. (APRI). Under the agreement, drilling operations are underway in Mak-Ban as part of the Steam Production Enhancement Campaign (SPEC) with similar plans set in Tiwi to help sustain steam field generation in the next 10 years and beyond.
The energy firm continues to operate its business in Tiwi and Mak-Ban geothermal steam fields under a 25-year geothermal service contract (GSC). The contract, signed in 2013, is renewable for another 15 years.
In Malinao, preparations are also in place for exploration drilling. PGPC was awarded the GSC for the Mt. Malinao Geothermal Power Project, which was recognized by the energy department as a project of national significance in 2018.
Similarly, in August 2021, PGPC won the bidding in DOE’s Third Open and Competitive Selection Process (OCSP3) for the Mount Labo Geothermal Power project in Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte, Quezon provinces and the Daklan Geothermal Power Project in Benguet.
In August 2022, the SM Investments Corporation acquired the full control of PGPC. SMIC President and CEO Frederic Dy Buncio assured the company will invest directly in clean renewable energy-related production.
Hopes are high when it comes to maintaining and improving power generation through geothermal energy, especially as the urgency to address climate change looms large.