The irony of Negros Island’s abundant renewable energy

Ninety-two-year-old Consolacion Tordaneso has been living on the outskirts of San Carlos City for decades with her husband Federico, 88, in their small shack without any electricity. In December last year, the Diocese of San Carlos distributed Eco-lamps to some 50 households without electricity.

The Tordanesos was one of the first beneficiaries of the program in partnership with a local Sustainable Energy and Enterprise Development for Communities (Seed4Com) and a Swiss non government organization.

Consolacion said it was the first time they had lights at night. It made their life easier and brighter. If not for the solar lamps, she said, they would have continued using a kerosene lamp at night, something they have been accustomed to doing for decades.

renewable energy
Ninety-two-year-old Consolacion Tordaneso of San Carlos City has lived for decades with her husband Federico, 88, without any electricity.

Ironically, after typhoon Rai ravaged the central Philippines in late December last year, they were the only ones in the neighborhood with lights at night because of their Eco-lamps.

The lamps were assembled and distributed a day before the typhoon struck the city by Lunhaw, the Ecological desk of the diocese, volunteers from the St. Vincent de Paul Mission station, and seminarians of St. John Mary Vianney.

However, charging the solar lamps poses a challenge for the couple. Their grandchildren and children come to their aid daily in assessing and setting up the lights. “The lamps are the only source of light for us,” Consolacion said.

The Tordaneso couple is among the thousands of households in the Philippines still without access to electricity despite efforts in recent years to improve generation and distribution, especially in rural areas. 

In 2021, the Philippine Energy Department said there are still 1.62 million households that were not reached by the Duterte administration’s electrification programs as mandated by the implementation of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) of 2001.    

Based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, the Energy Department reported that of the number of households without electricity, some 1.55 million are within the areas or accessible by electric cooperatives. 

The National Electrification Administration (NEA) said there are currently 121 electric cooperatives under their supervision and each of these organizations is contributing to reaching out to more than 12,000 remote villages in the country. 

However, NEA admitted that the budget for the government’s “expanded Sitio Electrification program” in 2020 was only P1.6 billion, only enough for over a thousand villages.

renewable energy
The “green” Bishop of the Diocese of San Carlos Most Rev. Gerardo Alminaza.

For San Carlos Bishop Gerardo Alminaza, it is ironic that despite having two solar power fields and huge geothermal power, enough to supply the needs of Negros Oriental and Negros Oriental – the two provinces comprising the Negros Island, there are still pockets of communities in the region without electricity. Negros is the fourth largest island in the Philippines.

Alminaza said this is just one of the many “faces” of the energy woes on the island, with its fight for renewable energy of its highest concern. 

The island of Negros has made in recent years bold moves in gearing toward cleaner and renewable sources of energy unlike other areas still dependent on coal power plants. 

As early as 2019, former Negros Occidental Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr. declared the province “coal-free” through an executive order (EO).

Marañon Jr. released the EO after calls from the public, including the Roman Catholic Church to stop the proposed construction of a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant in San Carlos City. 

Alminaza was one of the staunch critics of the project and he rallied environmental groups throughout the province. 

“That was like the culmination of that Wednesday Silent protest we did. That’s something credited to the young people,” Alminaza said.

In the neighboring province of Negros Oriental, Governor Roel Degamo through an EO, banned coal power plants in the province though there were no reported plans yet. 

renewable energy
Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo, wants the province to be fully transitioned to green energy in the next two to three  years. 

Four years later, Negros Oriental passed its Renewable Energy (RE) Code, the first piece of legislation of its kind in the entire country. 

Negros Oriental’s RE Code, which was backed by the entire provincial board despite their political differences, provides incentives for possible investors for clean and renewable energy. 

The RE Code also hastens the process of acquisition of lots, documents, and licenses from the provincial government.

Earned carbon credits from the RE investments will be shared equally by the province and the local government where these projects are situated. 

The RE Code also facilitates the transition of the entire Negros Oriental from coal plant energy to RE sources through the establishment of the RE council under the office of the governor.

Degamo, who is seeking reelection, said that he wants the province to be fully transitioned to green energy in the next two to three years, one of his priorities, if he is given a fresh mandate. 

When asked if this is even possible, Degamo responded with a resounding yes, stressing the importance of the province’s RE Code that would pave the way for its realization. 

In 2021, Degamo also signed a COP26 coal phase-out deal, as one of the five subnationals including the states of Hawaii and Oregon. The Philippines also joined other countries in signing the agreement.

Lawyer Fe Marie Dicen-Tagle, general manager of Negros Oriental Electric Cooperative (NORECO) II shared Degamo’s optimism.

Tagle said only 8 megawatts (MW) of their energy mix come from KEPCO SPC Power Corporation, a coal power plant in Naga City, Cebu.  

The bulk of its supply, she said, has been “for the longest time,” from Palinpinon Geothermal Power Plant in Valencia, Negros Oriental, which supplies the remaining 24MW for their franchise area, covering most of the second district, including the capital Dumaguete City. 

“It is part of our mandate to ensure sustainable development through rural electrification,” Tagle said. “It should also be reliable, quality, and affordable, which RE provides.” NORECO II has 140,000 consumers. 

renewable energy
Local government officials of Negros Oriental and private partners celebrate the passage of the country’s first ever Renewable Energy Code.

Big Project Electrification

Engr. Wilfredo Magallano, a retired manager of the National Power Corporation (NPC) expressed concerns if the current energy supply in Negros Island would be enough with planned “big ticket” projects like the highly contested 174-hectare reclamation project off the coast of Dumaguete City. 

If the Dumaguete reclamation project would push through, he said, construction of mid-rise to high-rise buildings in the “mix-used” artificial islands would “affect the energy scenario of Negros Oriental.” 

According to Lopez-owned Energy Development Corp. (EDC), which operates the Palinpinon power plant, Magallano said NORECO II’s franchise area has a peak demand of 60 MW, with around 30-35MW consumed by Dumaguete City alone. In the 1980s, Dumaguete had 4 MW peak demand, he added.     

“If the city (of Dumaguete) plans to build at least 20 commercial buildings in the man-made islands, with each building consuming 3 MW, that would add 60MW to the (current) grid which it does not have,” he said in a mix of English and Bisaya. 

He also refuted the plan of the developers and the city to use solar power and wind installations on buildings to supply its own energy needs saying it would not be enough for most of the buildings which will be in operation round the clock. 

While he agrees that solar panels would be of help during the day, he said, buildings will still have to connect to the grid early in the morning and at night when there is no sun. He added that Negros Oriental is not part of the wind energy map of the Philippines, making wind power installation an ineffective and “costly band-aid solution.”  

Magallano cautioned the city government of Dumaguete of an impending “energy crisis” prompted by the big ticket reclamation project. The city has been under fire for months since 2021 as calls mounted to junk the project for alleged lack of consultations, anomalous negotiations with China-backed EM Cuerpo Inc., and irreversible devastating impact on the marine environment and the local coastal communities. 

“They (city and the developer) have to plan and consult ahead of time to supply the needs for their big projects,” he said. “You can’t construct a power plant overnight. It needs 3 to 5 years to put up a 100 MW power plant.”

The National Grid Corporation (NGCP) has anticipated a possible increase in the power demands in Negros Oriental, particularly in Dumaguete City and neighboring areas with the proposed construction of the Amlan-Dumaguete 138kV transmission project. As of writing, Dumaguete is being served by the power drawn from NGCP’s Amlan 69kV substation, which, according to their studies, would not be enough in the coming years. 

NGCP said the project will provide an alternative source of power for NORECO II and minimize transmission loss and improve power quality in the metro Dumaguete area.   

Renewable Energy Potentials

At present, Negros Islands is blessed with the Palinpinon Geothermal Power Plant in Valencia, Negros Oriental which produces 220MW of clean power since the late 1980s, and its solar power farm opened in 2016 in Bais City by Monte Solar Energy Inc. (Montesol), an AC Energy Company, whose chairman is Fernando Zobel de Ayala. 

Engr. Negie Niala of Montesol said their solar plant capacity is 18 MW DC per day. If RE generation from all solar fields in Negros Island would be combined, he said, it would be enough to supply the needs of the entire island, that’s on top of the 220 MW from Palinpinon. 

However, though they could supply the local demands, expanding their operation is still being held due to the lack of transmission infrastructures yet to be undertaken by the NGCP. 

Aside from solar potentials in Negros Island, NGCP’s 2022-2024 development plan includes a proposed Wind Power Project in Bais City, Manjuyod, and Mabinay, and a hydropower plant in Amlan. 

Other areas are also considered as possible hydropower producers in the towns of Pamplona, Sta. Catalina, La Libertad, and Binody in Negros Oriental and Moises Padilla, Binalbagan, Himamaylan, Kabangkalan, and Siplay in Negros Occidental.

Engr. Negie Niala of Montesol claims that Negros Island RE resources are enough to supply the needs of the entire island.

Negros Island’s Energy Supply Irony

Even if both Negros Occidental and Oriental have committed to RE initiatives, Alminaza claim that both provinces ironically source the majority of their power supply needs from coal power plants in Cebu and Panay. 

Alminaza explains that the entire Negros Island still gets 92% of its power needs from unclean sources despite having three RE generators in both provinces. 

In 2022, the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development released a scoping study of Negros’ power which said: “Negrosanons are ironically not benefitting from the clean and affordable renewable electricity generated in their island because 73-80% of the electricity being supplied to Negros captive electricity consumers are sourced from coal and diesel plants, mostly outside the island.”

Making things worse, Alminaza said, is President Rodrigo Duterte’s executive order last March considering “nuclear power” as a viable alternative source to support the country’s development and growing economy. 

Alminaza criticized Duterte’s EO describing it as an “admission” that their programs, which pushed for fossil and coal plants than the more sustainable RE alternatives, failed in the long run despite warnings. 

For Alminaza, the move would also “divert” the efforts of some local governments, like those in Negros Island, from renewable energy to unclean energy sources.

The prelate explains that like coal and fossil fuel plants, nuclear reactors need nuclear fuels like uranium and plutonium to generate energy. However, he said, these kinds of radioactive metals need to be imported, stressing that these are costly and are dependent on the flued world market.  

The fight for Renewable Energy Continues

In his diocese, Alminaza is yet again leading the fight against another proposed construction of an 18.5 billion 300 MW liquified natural gas (LNG) combined cycle power plant in San Carlos City’s Ecozone at Barangay Punao and Palampas, Negros Occidental. 

He said this is the second attempt of the same Manila-based conglomerate to propose a similar project after the first one was junked following intense pressure from the locals.

Alminaza questioned when and where the Energy Department and the proponent consulted the public on the proposed LNG plant in the city. “Who knows where their public scoping or consultation was?” he asked. “They (proponent) did not invite the youth environmental organizers.” 

“We will resist this! We will not yield!” he exclaimed.

But Alminaza admitted that the fight for the environment is not an easy path to take, and the Church could not do it alone.

This is why he is calling on the voting public to consider environmental protection and preservation as one of the criteria they should consider in choosing whom to vote for in the upcoming elections.

“We need to work with the government, civil society, and all the stakeholders as the Church is the moral voice!” he said.

This story was published with the support of Climate Tracker and Oxfam Philippines, as part of our Re-energizing Climate Reporting in the Philippines fellowship.