Image: Lech Mintowt-Czyz

Power on: a village transformed

Until three years ago the villagers in Binaluan, over 400 kilometres from Manila, Philippines, either had no electricity or relied on expensive, unreliable diesel generators. The fishing settlement is too remote to connect to the power grid, but a wind turbine and some solar panels changed everything. Communities around the world are increasingly turning to such microgrids. Lech Mintowt-Czyz discovered how they can transform lives.

By Lech Mintowt-Czyz on Dec 4, 2019

Gerald Tria makes fishing boats. The sound of his electric power tool at work is surprising in a village where the more usual sounds are the scampering of children, the scratching of chickens and the snuffling of free-roaming pigs. 

Tria can build more and better boats these days because he has electricity. The village has a microgrid of solar panels and a wind turbine which charge up batteries to provide round-the-clock power. It has made a huge difference to life in remote Binaluan, population 509.

“Word has spread I can build a boat in a month,” said Tria, a pencil behind his ear. “It used to take 10 weeks. The finish is also smoother. Repairs are much quicker as well. Lots of people are coming to me. I am busy.”

Gerald Tria takes a break with his grandmother, Lilia Molato, in front of her home. Image: Lech Mintowt-Czyz
Gerald Tria takes a break with his grandmother, Lilia Molato, in front of her home. Image: Lech Mintowt-Czyz

Off-grid systems like the one in Binaluan, on Palawan island, Philippines, are increasingly used in communities too remote to be connected to a centralised electricity supply. And they are very much needed. The World Bank estimates that around 840 million people live without electricity and 3 billion rely on polluting fuels like wood and dung for cooking. A report from the World Bank and the Global Off Grid Lighting Association, a Netherlands-based solar industry organisation, estimates around 108 million people now live better lives because of off-grid systems.

Tria has plans for the extra money he is bringing in. He gestures at the timber frame he sits inside: the shell of a house he is building for his 68-year-old grandmother, Lilia Molato. Currently her home is a small shelter built of rough planks and woven leaves. She shares it with four of her grandchildren, who are teenagers and young adults. “It is time she was comfortable.”

What will Tria do with his money once the home is built? He smiles, looking over at his seven-year-old daughter and his wife, who is holding their baby son. “Life was hard before,” recalls Tria. “It took all my body and my whole strength. Now? Life is better. I can even relax a little at night.”

With electricity, relaxation in Binaluan can now involve a movie, watching sports or even a bit of karaoke. Tria is not the only person to be earning a better living. Average earnings, in a village where fishing, farming and local crafts are the main sources of income, have risen from less than 3,000 Philippine pesos (US $59) a month to around 5,000 pesos (US $98) in three years.

The microgrid was installed through the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, a charitable body which is independent of Shell, at a cost of 7.5m pesos (US $148,000). Before then, only a handful of better-off villagers were able to afford generators. Using a generator to run one lightbulb for a month cost around 1,500 pesos (US $30). Even then, the generators were unreliable and hard to repair.

Today, electricity is available for all, guaranteed by a back-up generator which nobody can remember having to use.

The villagers now use roughly double the energy compared to early days of the microgrid. They try to manage demand with care. Only 10 freezers are allowed in the village. Appliances, like irons, that put a heavy short-term load on the system, are banned.

Binaluan’s power comes from a micro-grid installed on a hill above the remote fishing village
Binaluan’s power comes from a micro-grid installed on a hill above the remote fishing village

The villagers elect people to a management board, which sets the rules and runs the microgrid. Meters in each home record consumption and villagers pay monthly for their usage. Every household pays 300 pesos (US $6) for the first three kilowatts of power, then 15 pesos (30 US cents) for each kilowatt more. The income ensures the cost of replacing batteries is covered, but the co-operative needs more money to replace other equipment over time.

“The villagers already feel they are paying for the electricity,” says Leonil Severino, president of the co-operative. “But we have to be sustainable. We will find a way.”

Sustaining a microgrid is a big challenge, but the investment needed to install one is the barrier for most. Charity is one way forward, but charities have limited funds and must be strategic with them.

Separately, Shell is investing to establish viable businesses providing microgrids, minigrids capable of powering small towns and related technologies such as smart-meters. It aims, in this way, to provide reliable electricity to 100 million people who do not have it today in the developing world, by 2030.

That would be like bringing electricity to almost 200,000 villages like Binaluan.

Marionito Bayonon sits with his family in the shop he’s opened which has a freezer
Marionito Bayonon sits with his family in the shop he’s opened which has a freezer. Image: Lech Mintowt-Czyz

Marionito Bayonon opened a shop in the village after an injury forced him to stop working as a fisherman. The hum of the freezer behind him is one of the secrets of his success.

The freezer allows him to sell frozen meat, ice and treats for children. The electricity also allows him to sell credit for satellite television and offer a money transfer service.

“I have been able to double the size of the shop and I am going to expand again,” he says.

For village school teacher Marnelie Pantinople, the satellite televisions in the village mean more than soap operas and early typhoon warnings. “My pupils say they want to be doctors, nurses, detectives. These are not jobs we have in the village – they have seen them on television.

“The electricity has brought the world to them.”

More In Inside Energy

Sowing seeds for the future

Glengarry in the Scottish Highlands is restoring native pine forest in a project supported by Shell.

**Listen to The Energy Podcast: Trees: one way of tackling climate change? **

Nature's role in the fight against climate change

The world must find many ways to reduce carbon emissions while addressing growing energy demand. One approach is to protect and restore ecosystems that absorb carbon dioxide, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands. Inside Energy reports.