The existing limitations in grid infrastructure present no hindrance if plans for Mindanao’s energy development deprioritize building utility-scale power plants requiring large transmission towers, and advance instead distributed and decentralized clean energy systems.
These better cater to the small pockets of unelectrified communities dotting the landmass.
Renewable energy mini- and micro-grids, powered by solar, wind or small hydro, can be deployed in these areas at less cost per-kilowatt over time and without system losses from typical legacy grid-distributed power.
And since these sources produce electricity without carbon emissions compared to diesel and other fossil fuels, they are evidently healthier for people they serve.
I know this is possible because we have started to do it. From a family of indigenous Mindanaoans with a deep history in its energy sector, we launched the first commercial solar service provider in the region.
While much of the interest in solar originates from cities, our activities serving rural communities — whether for off-grid streetlighting, farming irrigation, community water supply or simply home electrification — have been consistent, even progressing.
They have also proven the most rewarding. Stories from our team are aplenty.
In one instance, installing solar home systems in a B’laan community in the hinterlands of South Cotabato where flipping a light switch for the first time inside their homes was met with great joy and celebration.
It made the team’s long difficult hike to reach the area worth every kilometer.
We are further testing our models, in partnership with technical experts in the local academe and cleantech startups within the country and abroad, to organize and connect for high-functioning commercially viable clean energy mini-grids.
We hope to provide economic and education opportunities, and help move communities away from conflict and other poverty-related challenges.
We know we’re not the only ones. The initiatives may dance between development and peace to profit motives but also, curiously, for pride.
The average Mindanaon adult took pleasure in belonging to a region where the majority of electricity came from clean and renewable sources.
The recognition that power passing through gridlines into homes were mostly generated by Mindanao’s great rivers and the country’s tallest volcano was prevalent.
The path ahead
In the last few decades however, coal plants have proliferated. The region’s educated and political elite is cognizant of the fact that this dirty technology already discarded in other progressive economies should have a diminished role in Mindanao’s future energy landscape.
Reclaiming the throne of a renewable energy-based power grid will provide a sense of agency and renewed pride to the region.
Pair that with the knowledge of climate science and solutions, and we have a formula for the success of the sustainable energy agenda in the Southern Philippines.
Perhaps by virtue of the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, awareness of climate change in the country is high.
Some strengthening of the link between clean energy, sustainability and climate action may be required but this is the promise of education groups like the Climate Reality Project which has acquired a new wave of Mindanao-based leaders, ready to take on the task of communicating clean energy as a solution to both climate mitigation and adaptation.
This is, by no means, saying the work ahead is easy. The region could use some help from the finance sector who, in turn, could get some push from policy makers.
But today, a clean energy future in Mindanao is plausible and welcome. The technology is accepted. The people are ready. Attaining sustainability for this region’s energy system might just be the nudge to achieving a clean energy future for the entire Philippines.
A version of this opinion piece was first published in the Manila Bulletin. Philline Donggay is the first Climate Reality Leader from Mindanao.