Let there be light: Changing lives with renewable energy

Apayao is a landlocked province of mountains, rivers, and farmlands. Found at the northern edge of Luzon, it is bordered by Cagayan to the north and its east, Ilocos Norte to the west, and Abra to the south. Within Apayao, some 607 kilometers north from Manila, lies the municipality of Calanasan.

steep climb

The trip to Calanasan is a grueling fifteen hour trip by car, but to reach Parina, another three hours is needed. The mountain community is only accessible via a rugged access road, freshly cut through the mountainside. On good days, the mud stymies most vehicles and, occasionally, a tractor is needed to haul vehicles up the sharply inclined slopes. On bad days, the road is subject to landslides making travel all but impossible.

Once Parina is reached, visitors are treated to a reminder of a more pristine time. Parina is verdant with dense foliage while, off in the distance, fog envelops the peaks of the Cordilleras. Taking in the scenery, there is an almost primaeval feeling to the community’s isolation. That isolation extends to facilities taken as staples of city life. Like other far-flung communities across the country, Parina has neither phone lines nor a cell tower nearby. It is, however, home to a micro-hydro power plant, a project of De La Salle University and its partnership with SN Aboitiz Power. This 10 kilowatt power plant supplies power to fifty-five households in Parina. More amazing still, it is operated and maintained by Parina’s residents.

A convergence of technology and environmentalism

Marfori profile pic

Engineer Isidro Marfori is the project head of the Micro-Hydro Technology power plant in Parina. A faculty member of DLSU’s Gokongwei College of Engineering and project head of the Center for Micro-Hydro Technology for Rural Electrification (CeMTRE). As Marfori explains it, the Micro-Hydro power plant uses water sourced from nearby Cadcadir river. Water from the river is diverted through canals, channels, and pipes. The diverted water is then led through a turbine. As the turbine rotates, mechanical energy is generated and then transferred to an electric generator which then produces the electric power.

Marfori was happy to point out that the process does not add chemicals, gas by-products, and is, thus, very clean. As a “run-off” system, no dams are put into place. Dams are notorious for unbalancing delicate ecological systems  as these significantly alter natural topography and displace wildlife.   In contrast to dams, run-off systems such as the micro-hydro power plant merely diverts a much smaller volume of water and, thus, maintains the natural balance of the area. The very sustainability of the system is one the reasons why De La Salle University strongly believes in the project.

Preparing communities for change with social engagement

In implementing the project, Marfori described DLSU’s approach which he termed as “Community-based Micro-hydro System.” The process was one of social engagement in which the community’s active involvement was encouraged by the DLSU team. To begin the process, the DLSU team took into account the community’s living conditions, means of livelihood, demographics, and knowledge base. After the necessary information was gathered, the team then approached the community on a per family basis and introduced them to the concepts behind the technology. According to Marfori, some members of the community were not even aware of electricity prior to the project.

class engagement

After the preparatory phase of the project was completed, the team proceeded to build consensus within the community by talking to the community’s elders. Only after the consensus of the community is attained that the actual planning and design phases took place. Planning began with the selection of members for the Barangay Power Association or BAPA who are tasked with managing and operating the power plant. Marfori stressed that while DLSU can provide technology that can last nearly a lifetime, the system can only work if the community takes care of and maintains the plant. As such, the DLSU imparted on the community the importance of technology management and the skills to actively maintain the plant–from changing worn out parts to ecological awareness such as checking if their water source is still available. Marfori stressed to the community they have to maintain their forest and not cut down trees. “In fact, they should plant more trees so that the retention of water in the mountain will increase or remain the same,” he said.

DLSU’s history of sustainable development

The micro-hydro power plant in Parina is not the DLSU-CeMTRE’s first foray into the technology and the electrification of a remote community. Since 1998, DLSU has been providing electricity to underserved communities. as Marfori recounts, one of the earliest project areas for DLSU was Abra. “We have three power plants there that are still operational up to this point,” he said. Marfori was also proud to point out that a cooperative emerged from one of the communities managing a power plant which was evidence that communities were developing and even profiting from their new power systems.

In regards to Parina itself, Marfori sees a number of ways in which the community can thrive with the help of the new power plant. “They can actually gain an income by implementing livelihood activities that the micro-hydro power plant can power. They can put up, say, a rice peeling facility. Because the rice mill is powered by a renewable source of power, they don’t need to buy gasoline,” said Marfori.

The implications for a small community such as Parina is staggering.

“Since they don’t have to buy fuel, they can actually save money and this is additional profit for them. They can also put up a welding shop so that, within the community, if they have welding services, they can repair things themselves and charge for the service,” said Marfori.

Challenges and the future of sustainability

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According to Marfori, there are many communities in the Philippines that continue to live without the benefit of electricity. Given that the country is tropical, why isn’t there more of these projects addressing the needs of far flung communities? Simply put, the development and execution of a micro-hydro facility is not easy. Moreover, coal is the defacto energy source for much of the Philippines and the developing world. “Coal is the easiest energy source. You just import everything and that’s it,” Marfori intones.

Another concern of Marfori is that sufficient volumes of water needed to power micro-hydro plants are found only along the mountains and countryside. Such areas add difficulty to the logistics of complex projects and invariably increases cost and construction time due to their inaccessibility. Marfori also confided that communication is another problem as no cell towers are present in the area. Thus, each component and piece of equipment must be meticulously planned into the itinerary.

Regarding components, the turbine needed for the plant introduced a challenge in its own right. Very few people in the Philippines are capable of designing and manufacturing micro-hydro turbines. Fortunately, DLSU is one of the few institutions that have the capability to design, produce, and deploy the component in the field.

“Initially, it was technically challenging. I designed the turbines then we built and later tested them in a laboratory. Once we deployed the turbine, that is where the unknown comes in. Is your design durable? Will it work? Will it be efficient? Will it provide power to the community? As the project progressed and as we went through our daily activities in the center, built more turbines, and implemented more power plants, challenges change and new goals are set.”

Beyond the logistical and technical difficulties of the project, Marfori presented DLSU aims: to make the technology widely available to other universities so that they can implement similar projects to other underserved communities like Parina. While difficult and costly, Marfori reiterates that the completion of such plants will change lives.  If the prior Abra projects are any indication, the Parina community is on track to experiencing growth themselves. And in regards to how long the plant will remain in operation, Marfori replies with the words: “It will last almost forever.”

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