Solar energy powering this church’s humanitarian efforts

When Typhoon Odette (international name: Rai) destroyed the power and communication lines, it was a small solar-powered battery that kept them going. Immediately after the super typhoon made its fifth landfall on Bohol province on December 16, the Diocese of Tagbilaran’s social action center geared up for its disaster response. 

Daidee Padron, a staff of the diocesan social action center, said the quick response team was ready to be deployed to assess the damage of the typhoon, and relief goods were already on standby. 

“One major challenge though was the coordination to the national Caritas office and to the local parishes because there was no electricity and the communication was down,” she said.

Padron, however, said the quick assessment and the relief operation have commenced with no delays “because our headquarters is powered by solar panels.”

“There were limitations but the entire mission to assist those who were badly affected by the super typhoon was not stalled because we have electricity day and night,” she said.

Buon Pastore Community Center, where the social action center is situated, was built with a solar panel system after the province was hit by a strong earthquake in 2013. Fr. Warly Salise, head of the social action arm of the Diocese of Tagbilaran, said the solar panel system has been giving power to the diocese’s humanitarian operations since then. 

“It’s been very useful, especially in the event of power interruptions. Weeks after the destruction of Odette, we are still using the energy from the solar panel system,” he said. 

The priest said renewable energy is a reliable source of power, adding that it emits “no noise, no smoke, just deep silence and roaring power from the scorching sun.”

Electricity became scarce in the province several weeks after the typhoon due to toppled towers of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) that connect Bohol to its Leyte power source. Bohol is connected to the Visayas Grid but it depends on Leyte for 60 percent of its power demand. 

NGCP said Bohol is expected to be reconnected to Leyte in mid-February. While waiting, power utilities were temporarily tapping power barges to provide electricity to consumers.A councilor of Tagbilaran City on February 2 proposed to install solar-powered street lamps to keep the city streets lighted even when there is a problem with power lines due to strong typhoons.

Councilor Dodong Gonzaga said he is pushing for an initiative to install street lights that can be both powered using electricity and solar energy.

Gonzaga, however, said that the plan might not be implemented in the near future because solar panels are currently “in demand” amid the continued unstable power supply in the province.

Caritas Philippines, the social action arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), has been encouraging government and private institutions to promote and invest in renewables such as solar panel systems “as the impacts of the climate crisis continue to worsen.” 

“Typhoons are getting stronger each year. These typhoons will bring more destruction to communities and industries. We must act faster to provide solutions to these problems,” said Fr. Antonio Labiao, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines. 

The priest said renewable energy sources are our best way to drastically lower down carbon emissions that coal and other fossil fuels contribute to global warming. 

“Another benefit of renewable energy sources such as solar panels is that it can be installed on houses, buildings, and empty lands, which can be very useful during disasters,” he said. 

Fr. Labiao said the Caritas Philippines is “urging social action centers” in 85 dioceses across the country to install solar panels on their facilities “not only as a response to the call to promote renewables but to use these solar-powered batteries during emergencies.” 

The priest said Caritas Philippines is confident that more dioceses “will power their facilities with renewables after the CBCP renewed its call to promote clean energy.” 

On January 29, the CBCP issued a pastoral statement reaffirming the Church’s commitment “to lead by example” in promoting the use of renewable energy and other sustainable systems “in our own facilities and communities.” 

Jing Rey Henderson, communications head of Caritas Philippines, said there are church institutions, dioceses, and local parishes that have already invested in renewable energy systems. 

“However, we are in the process of documenting the exact figure of church-owned facilities that installed or planning to install renewable energy systems at the moment,” she said. 

The National Shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help or the Baclaran Church in Pasay City, run by the Redemptorist Congregation, has installed its own solar energy system. 

But unlike the social action center in the Diocese of Tagbilaran, which uses an “off-grid solar energy system,” the Baclaran Church installed an “on-grid solar energy system.”

The on-grid solar energy system is connected to the utility grid while the off-grid system is not on the grid and is using a battery as storage of collected and converted solar energy. 

Redemptorist Brother Ciriaco Santiago said the power harvested in the Baclaran Church goes straight to the utility grid, which the Manila Electric Company offsets in its monthly bill. 

“The Baclaran Church has been harvesting solar energy for five years now. The amount in peso of the electricity that the church contributes to the grid varies because electricity rates also vary,” he said. 

Santiago said there is “definitely a significant amount of power that the Baclaran Church gets” from the solar energy system, which is about 30 to 35 percent of the total consumption. 

solar energy
Workers examine the solar panels after the devastation of Typhoon Odette in December 2021. Photo supplied by Diocese of Tagbilaran

He said the return of investment for the solar energy system installed in Baclaran Church is eight years. “After that period, we can consider the harvested solar energy as savings.” 

The Catholic Church in the Philippines “has no centralized plan” on how to establish renewable energy systems in different church facilities and communities. 

Henderson said the planning and implementation “will depend on the capacity of each diocese” to access or allocate funds for the installation of renewable energy systems. 

She said Caritas Philippines is ready to assist dioceses that want to explore and take advantage of the benefits of renewables such as solar energy.

“We offer technical training and workshops to capacitate our dioceses. We also have partners in the civil society and business sectors that we can tap to help us get access to these renewable energy systems,” she said. 

Henderson encouraged local dioceses and church organizations “to make renewable energy a priority while the CBCP is bringing the issue to the policymakers and to the public.”

“The new pastoral statement on ecology is also a call for the government, financial institutions, and power companies to make renewable energy systems more accessible to the public,” she said. 

In the pastoral statement, the bishops renewed the call to “not allow the financial resources of our Catholic institutions to be invested in favor of coal-fired power plants” and other destructive projects.

The bishops said the coal phase-out “will happen only if financial resources are re-channeled so as to disable the coal industry.” 

CBCP said the banks have until the year 2025 to come up with “clear commitments and policies” to divest from fossil fuels or the churches will “withdraw all our resources that are with them” and “hold them accountable to their fiduciary duties and moral obligations as climate actors.” 

The bishops also re-echoed the stance of the civil society organizations on the country’s submission of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). 

“The climate commitment should include clear decarbonization pathways, indicative of a just transition in the energy sector, with a higher share of unconditional commitments, established timeline for reducing the reliance on fossil fuels, a rejection of nuclear power, and ambitious targets for renewable energy development and efficiency by 2050,” the statement read.

CBCP will also reject “donations of whatever kind” from proponents of extractive industries especially coal, fossil gas, mining, quarrying, logging, among others. 

The bishops’ new policy statement “is a validation that we are doing the right thing in the diocesan social action center,” according to Padron. 

She said she is hopeful that the diocese will come up with a plan and get funding to install more solar panel systems in other church-owned facilities and communities.

“The world is changing because of the climate crisis. Our task is to adapt to these changes using renewable and sustainable power systems in order to continue our mission,” she said. 


This story was originally published on Oeconomedia, through our “Re-engergizing climate reporting in the Philippines” fellowship, in partnership with Oxfam Philippines.