Turmoil in paradise

GIFT scouts renewable power projects on the Panay Island

Thomas Tang, Executive Director of GIFT, was on Panay Island from 15-17 November to attend the Visayas Clean Energy Forum and to assess the feasibility of renewable power projects for the Global Young Leaders Programme, a leadership development initiative that brings young executives to rural projects to develop sustainable business opportunities that yield social and environmental benefits to communities.

Visitors to the Panay Island, part of the Visayas grouping in central Philippines, can be easily forgiven if they arrive and think they have landed in paradise. White beaches and blue waters as well as lush tropical settings pleasingly greet the eye.

Life is a beach (Photo: Lakbay Pilipinas)

But not all is well on this island, home to roughly three million people, where the main activities are largely agriculture and fishing. The growth of industries like food and beverage processing is placing demands on an energy supply that is based on aging power facilities and an interconnection with nearby Negros island, where an excess capacity of power can be found.

Some argue that more energy - in the form of a new 100 MW coal power station - is needed for the island’s business community to flourish. Others disagree, especially the Green Forum, a coalition of civil society groups who pose the argument that Panay Island needs a new power station like “an elephant needs an extra trunk”.

Concerns raised include the health impacts to the public from burning dirty coal (as it would have to be), to a growing consciousness that this would lead to further contributions to climate change (which the rest of world is trying to curb), as well as defacing Panay’s pristine natural beauty.

But who is right? The dilemma is typical of situations around Asia where economic development comes into conflict with rural sanctity.

Even the occurrence of brown-outs – as witnessed by the author in his 48-hour stay at Iloilo, the main city of Panay – does not deter the Green Forum members who maintain that Panay island can find other resources to meet its energy needs rather than a new coal power station.

Anyone care to know what we think?
(Photo: Thomas Tang)

In a recent debate held at Iloilo on 16th November 2007, Professor Rowaldo del Mundo, one of the leading experts in Asian power systems, stated that an alternative energy strategy based on renewables – hydropower, wind, biomass and geothermal – could meet Panay’s and the Visaya’s future power needs up to 2030.

The future is bright, bright green –proposed generation mix for the Visayas from 2006 to 2030
(Source: Visayas Clean Power Scenario and Multi-Stakeholder Power Development Planning)

This bold gambit is not without credence. Panay island boasts rich resources in sugar cane, a thriving industry which can provide sufficient crop waste to feed biomass co-generation convertors to feed energy hungry sugar mills.

Next to Igbara, a small town about an hour’s drive from Iloilo, a rural village is situated next to a looming waterfall where an attractive 4 MW of potential hydro power can be harnessed to meet the community’s energy needs. This is typical of many of the villages dotted around Panay where micro hydro projects can offer available power without massive infrastructure provisions.

Panay island has its share of social challenges. Like many other Asian cities, there the “haves” (as evidenced by the proliferation of four wheel SUVs parked outside the author’s hotel on a Friday night) and the “have-not’s”, who eke a living scavenging on the municipal rubbish dumps in Iloilo. Tackling the island’s energy problems will in turn have positive outcomes for the poor. Turning the city’s main rubbish dump into a waste to energy facility may remove the livelihood of the scavenger community but, given the opportunity to set up a hygienic recycling station versus the perils of disease and physical harm, there should be communities living off rubbish dumps prepared to consider this option to give their young hope for the future.

A hard way to earn a living (Photo: Thomas Tang)

Rural villages would benefit from available and distributed energy, removing reliance on grids and harmonising renewable energy within a rural context; and the massive sugar mills would be able to turn organic waste into a useful resource with excess to benefit surrounding communities where their workforces live. There is further scope to generate new enterprise models to develop appropriate technologies to satisfy a market that will create immense environmental and social benefits.

In many ways, Panay’s decision lays the path for a bigger picture to show the world that a renewable strategy is feasible breaking the dated mould of “green energy cannot work”. It can and it should.

Power to the people (Photo Thomas Tang)