By Ria Fernandez
Paluan, Occidental Mindoro – Time was when this town’s 13,000 inhabitants had to make do with rotational brownouts and the heavy smoke emission from the generators that were used to energize the area.
Quite unthinkable, actually, considering that it’s already the 21st century, and technology has all but taken over the lives of the common Filipino.
But not for the Palueños.
According to former mayor Abelardo Pangilinan, now a provincial board member, the town used to only have generators as its main source of electricity.
Occidental Mindoro Electric Cooperative, Inc. or OMECO used to supply power to Paluan from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. But because of the difficulty in reaching Paluan that is 35 kilometers away from the capital Mamburao, and with the sleepy town situated at the northern-most tip of Occidental Mindoro, OMECO withdrew its service.
This forced the local government to purchase its own generator sets (gensets).
Every day, Palueños had to make the most out of the eight to 14 hours these gensets were operated with electricity being cut from 12 a.m. to 4 a.m., and 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Plus, the set-up was costly in the long run on the part of the municipality.
“The local government was losing around P1.5 million to P2 million per year. We cannot really cope with all the [expenses]. We cannot supply the entire municipality,” Pangilinan said.
But this is now a thing of the past as the whole town of Paluan presently enjoys reliable source of electricity, derived from the sun.
Heaven-sent, many of them call the project, which now provides electricity 24 hours-a-day, seven days a week – a convenience the Palueños never experienced in the past.
The Paluan project is said to be the first in Asia – a whole town energized round-the-clock with the help of 6,500 photovoltaic panels.
It all started when Leandro Leviste, president and chief executive officer of Solar Philippines, and Paluan Mayor Carl Michael Pangilinan met in an event in Manila.
Young mavericks as they are, Leviste and Pangilinan found common ground for the former’s “Solar Para sa Bayan” program, which seeks to utilize solar energy to electrify rural areas in the country.
Pangilinan, for his part, was desperately seeking people interested to provide reliable yet affordable power for his small, distant town.
Talks began until finally sometime in December last year, the plan to energize Paluan through solar energy materialized.
“Una, ang iniisip namin parang [First, we think] it’s very impossible na magkaroon ng [to have a] multi-million project sa [in] Paluan considering we are in the northern tip of Occidental Mindoro tapos [then] third-class municipality. Then again, nakita namin na seryoso si Sir Leviste especially nung meeting namin sa NEA (National Electrification Administration) noon [we saw how serious Sir Leviste is especially during our meeting with NEA before]. Nung sinabi niya na [When he said that] he wants to make it happen,” said Jeffrey Huertas, Secretary of Paluan Sangguniang Bayan and municipal representative to the “Solar Para Sa Bayan” program.
Jeric Viernes, Senior Operations and Maintenance Engineer of Solar Philippines-Paluan, said the panels can “generate two megawatts of electricity — more than enough for the 350-kilowatt average power demand of the whole town of Paluan.”
Delilah Parisan belongs to the local Mangyan tribe and has, herself, never experienced continuous, uninterrupted power supply.
But the 24/7 electricity coming from the solar panels has opened new horizons for the 31-year-old mother whose children can now study even at night.
“Masaya kami na may Solar na napatayo sa amin. Masaya rin po kami… wala na po masyadong brownout mula po ng nagkaroon ng Solar. [We are happy that a solar plant was installed in our place. We are also happy because the occurrence of brownouts have become less since solar came.]”
Josefina Templanza, head teacher of the Paluan National High School, noted that students have been able to comply with school requirements and class assignments on time, as they can pore through these even at night.
And the continuous supply of electricity has also helped her fellow teachers.
“Nagagawa ko na ng walang abala ang lahat ng school forms and school records. At naipapasa naming ng tama sa oras,” she said.
And being a coastal town, Paluan’s fisherfolk have also benefited from the Solar Philippines initiative.
Fish merchant Edgar Barrientos said he can now have his stock of squid, fish and other marine products stored in a reliable cold storage area without fear that it would ever conk out.
“Kung makakagawa kami ng sariling freezer, malaking mamumura namin. Malaki mase-save namin. ‘Saka mas sigurado produkto namin. [If we will have a freezer, our costs will be cheaper and we will be able to save. Plus, the quality of our products is assured.]”
And with all-day and all-night long electricity comes the effectivity of ensuring peace and order in the town, which had previously been blanketed in a shroud of darkness come night time.
“Minimal po ang crime response namin kasi nga stable ang kuryente…Although, may konting interruption pero naibabalik din po agad. So from December o November nag-start ang solar to present, wala pong crime incident dito sa Paluan,” said Paluan Chief of Police Sr. Insp. Ernil Delos Santos.
It was a risk investment for Solar Philippines, which spent almost P150 million for the project.
But Leviste said he was optimistic that they will be able to recover the cost in time once residents start to realize that Solar Philippines can provide cheap, clean, and reliable electricity.
“We’re hopeful that once the people of Paluan start to buy electrical appliances, increase their electric consumption, and when more industries will also locate in the town, we will be able to recover our investment faster,” Leviste added.
And, for the young visionary, Paluan will not be the end of their crusade to make electricity more accessible as plans are also underway to provide the same service to other brownout-prone areas in Occidental Mindoro.
“Paluan was the town that had worse power service in Occidental Mindoro — the province that was known as the brownout capital of the Philippines. So if we could make the town previously had the worst power, have the best power in the region then we hope to send the message that this is possible in every town in the Philippines,” Leviste said.