Industry Insights

Off-Grid Solar Power – Sustainability is Key to Success

2019-08-28  |  5 min read 

Our visit to the remote villages of Mindoro a couple of years back brought home their wish to have access to affordable electricity.

The island of Mindoro geographically sits smack in the middle of the Pacific "typhoon belt" and natural disasters often displace large communities. One of the worst-hit victims are the Mangyans – they are among the Philippines' most impoverished native people.  

In November 2013, the fast and furious Typhoon Yolanda careened through many parts of the Philippines, killing over 6,000 people. It also displaced 14 million people – more than double the entire population of Singapore.

Fast-forward to 2019, after asking our friends in Mindoro what would help empower a small displaced and re-settled community in Caritas, Mindoro, the answer was to restore a basic need: light.

We explored ideas from costly diesel generators to even more costly micro-grid systems. In the end, between ideals and pragmatism, the decision was to take baby steps towards adopting renewable energy by installing solar panels for the households.

Villagers attend a class to learn how to assemble solar panels
Villagers attend a class to learn how to assemble solar panels

Our friend Amando, who collaborated with MCKS Caring Heart Foundation, an NGO serving remote communities across the Philippines, estimated it would cost each household 10,000 pesos, or almost $200, to link to the electrical grid in their barangay. The cost does not include lamp posts and monthly utility bills. This is out of reach for the community where the average wage is around 100 pesos a day or less.

Sustainability was one of the criteria for Project Light Up @Caritas. Besides material costs, issues such as installation, maintenance and repairs had to be factored in.

To bring about end-user empowerment, the NGO which we supported worked with the local Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) agency. TESDA provided subsidized training, with the NGO funding materials cost and the villagers, their commitment to attend training. The villagers learned the basics of electricity and electrical appliances maintenance. Of the 30 students, whose ages ranged from 16 to 60, nine graduated from the month-long course with a National Certificate 2, qualifying them with livelihood skills to repair electrical appliances.

On a balmy night in May 2019, the lights went up for each of the 50 households in Caritas after five years of living without any electricity.

Delighted children experience the first light up at their homes in Caritas

The road ahead for this small community at Caritas holds promises amidst imminent challenges. The current solar panels each have a lifespan of 30 years, and the main limitations are lack of budget for better energy storage options, plus the cost of LED light bulbs. One of the immediate challenges was figuring out the coolest spot in their homes to extend the life of their lead-acid batteries. These batteries are much more affordable than the industry-standard Lithium-ion (Li-ion) cells but can last only about five years. Lead-acid batteries also degrade faster in the tropical climate which sees temperatures sometimes soaring above 40 oC.

Rapid advancements in the design and test of Li-ion cells from R&D to manufacturing are helping to bring down the cost of Li-ion battery packs. But these better-quality cells are currently beyond the reach of impoverished communities that lack funding support. The TESDA officials hope that one day, they can switch from lead-acid to Li-ion battery packs as technology continues to make the products more affordable.

Better cell and battery tests help to drive down storage costs
Better cell and battery tests help to drive down storage costs (source: BloombergNEF)

Many small grounds-up initiatives such as Project Light Up @Caritas are happening in tiny pockets across the 7,000 islands making up the Philippines. With official support, the collective effort hopes that eventually, mini and microgrids can also be successfully deployed to help the nation achieve 100% electrification1.

1 Accelerating Renewable Mini-Grid Deployment: A Study on the Philippines