Siegfred Aldous Lacerna

Published: April 10, 2024

LAGUNA, Philippines — More than 22,000 small-scale fisherfolk rely on Laguna de Bay, the Philippines’ largest lake, to make ends meet. However, the construction of a 2,000-hectare floating solar panel project, which promises an alternative energy generation, threatens the livelihood of these fishers.

Lino Jastillana, who has been fishing in the lake since the 1980s, exemplifies the plight of those whose woes on the solar project remain unheard.

“[Fisherfolks] like me are scared of the floating solar panels because they would build it on locations where we traditionally fish,” Jastillana, a fisher from Cabuyao town, said. 

Years before the solar project’s conception, fisherfolk like him have already noticed a reduction in their yield. “We could catch as much as 20 kilos before. If we get 10 kilos of fish, we consider it a good day already,” he said. 

With the solar panel construction nearing completion, Jastillana worries about their future as their lives are on the line in the name of electricity generation and sustainable energy transition. 

Point of no return? 

Photo shows a stack of pante nets used for fishing at the Laguna lake. (Siegfred Aldous Lacerna)

According to Rey Donne Papa, a freshwater scientist and dean of the College of Science at the University of Santo Tomas (UST), rolling back the construction of the floating solar panels is no longer an option as the country urgently needs to transition to clean energy to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“We are aiming [to lessen] the negative impacts of the floating solar panels,” Papa said, emphasizing that there are already existing studies about it, particularly abroad. 

In September 2023, ACEN Corporation, an Ayala Group energy company, was granted green lane processing by the Philippine government’s Board of Investments to expedite the application and licensing process for several floating solar panel projects.

The projects Solar4Ace, AC Laguna Floating Solar Power Plant, AC Subi, GigaWind1 Floating Solar Project, and Ingrid Floating Solar Power Plant will cover over 800 hectares of the Laguna Lake surface, stretching to several towns, including Santa Cruz, Victoria, Pila, Kalayaan, Paete, and Lumban. 

However, ACEN’s approved solar projects are just part of the bigger pie as the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) had auctioned off a total of 2,000 hectares in Laguna de Bay, covering other Laguna cities like Santa Rosa, Cabuyao, and Calamba. LLDA said the 2,000-hectare floating solar panel project will generate 2,500 megawatts of energy once completed. 

Eric Francia, president of ACEN, said in a press release that the floating solar project is crucial for energy innovation in the Philippines by expanding the energy portfolio on lakes to address land scarcity.

He added it “is a tangible opportunity” for the company to “adopt new technologies, contribute to the Luzon grid, and bolster energy self-sufficiency while addressing climate change.” 

Climate Tracker sought for ACEN’s comments, but there has been no response as of press time.

Consultation with communities

Raymond Marquez, another UST professor specializing in solar farms, said that solar energy is a viable option for the country. However, he stressed the importance of stakeholders obtaining the necessary environmental compliance certifications and engaging in dialogue with local communities where these energy technologies will be located. 

“You have to really talk to the barangay-level people, justify and have the approval of the constituents,” Marquez said. 

Jastillana, a former member of Bantay Lawa, a group of volunteer fishermen that coordinates closely with Laguna-based aquatic agencies, had to leave the organization because of issues surrounding the floating solar panels. He said that while some members supported the project, the concerns of those who opposed it were not addressed before it was greenlighted. 

During the solar project’s early stages in 2021, LLDA set up a Renewable Energy Committee. One of its responsibilities was to provide venues for public participation from different stakeholders throughout the program’s development. 

Given Laguna de Bay’s size, it was no surprise it was selected as a location for massive solar energy projects. But Papa cautioned against excessive development of floating solar panels to avoid jeopardizing the traditional functions of Laguna de Bay for fishing. 

He also said that concerned agencies should study the locations of the solar panel construction, especially the areas that will be devoted to aquaculture.

“The tracks of solar panels are going to be blocking sunlight in significant portions of the lake, which will have an impact on the limnological process of the dynamics of Laguna Lake underneath,” Papa said, adding that if the locations are not strategically put in the proper place, it could alter the productivity, decomposition rate, and dissolved oxygen values of the lake. 

Higher costs 

A fisherman clears out water hyacinths in a portion of Laguna Lake in Cabuyao, Laguna. (Siegfred Aldous Lacerna)

According to Marquez, the 2,000 hectares of solar panels is just a small portion of the lake’s total area so relocation of fishing areas is a possible option. 

However, Jastillana said relocation would double the cost of their boat operations due to increased fuel consumption to reach new fishing grounds. Currently, they consume just two liters for fishing in their usual areas.

“They would also clump us with other fisherfolk groups who we did not fish with originally, which could affect our yield,” he said. 

Aside from that, Jastillana mentioned safety risks from electrocution if their gear like pante, a fishing net, get hooked on the wirings of the lake.

Papa pointed out that government agencies and corporations directly involved in building the solar panels should properly communicate what these entail for fisherfolk in the area. 

He warned that poor execution of the solar panels project could trigger adverse effects on the livelihoods of fishermen and the lake’s ecology, diminishing the overall benefits of transitioning to clean energy. For instance, there could be a tendency for fish to seek refuge under the panels. 

Papa also emphasized the need to monitor the solar panels before, during, and after construction phases while collaborating with scientists throughout the process. 

“Science has the answers. I just hope that they will support the science that will guide them towards fully utilizing renewable energy resources in the country,” Papa said.

However, Jastillana, being at the receiving end of this new technology, is left wondering what it would mean for him and other fisherfolk whose livelihoods are tied with the lake already once the solar panels are operational. 

For Laguna de Bay’s fisherfolk, their hope is that their daily work will not be disturbed. 

 

This story was supported by the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines