by Sophia Bonifacio, Maria Elaine Dino, and John Russelle Lingat

“With great power comes great electricity bill,” a modified pop culture reference that is even more relevant to communities powered up by big electric power distribution companies, but not to off-grid communities. 

On May 13, 2023, the Philippines recorded the highest temperature hitting 50 degree celsius which was also hit as one of the highest recorded temperatures. Following that, Filipinos have to maximize the use of their electric fans, air conditioners, and other cooling appliances such as refrigerators and other electricity-operated appliances. 

As a result, the consumption of electricity seemingly increases and the cost is directly proportional to the consumption. As the heat from the sun becomes unbearable, too much consumption of electricity is no longer new to a Filipino household. 

What if there is a way to maximize the use of electricity without inflating our electricity bills as much?  What if converting sunlight into electricity to power up houses and to operate other appliances may be a possible answer to this household need?

IN PHOTO: Solar Panel on the Roof of Brgy. Bukal Hall, Nagcarlan, Laguna Installed last April 24.

Filipino Communities powered up by the Solar Energy

In the Philippines, the climate is composed of two — Sunny and Rainy — these two weather conditions are important factors for solar energy to work at its best.

Solar energy brought by the sun can be converted into electricity through solar energy panels such as Photovoltaic systems to operate and bring energy not just in homes but also in the office, schools, and even different churches to lessen the expenses they allocate for electricity. 

In different areas of the country, the electric bill is a significant pain in the pocket for many Filipino families as it ballooned gradually, considering the fact that the weather is too hot and many families need electricity to beat the heat, still, the increase in bill isn’t considerable. 

Due to this, many households and businesses, even churches invest in Solar Energy to lessen the cost of electricity. 

Solar panels as a cost-effective energy resource

An average family can use up to 12 kWh a day. This would include a four-member household utilizing lights,  refrigerators, cooling devices, and recreational appliances. In the Philippines, 1 kWh costs Php 10.27 per kWh, and an average family pays Php 123.24 per day if we rely on fuels. 

Now, if a family were to install solar energy units, will a common Filipino citizen be able to afford the installment of such equipment?

During the installment, note that there are different kW of solar panels. Every 1kW panel is equal to 4kWh. Hypothetically, if a household consumes 16kWh per day, they would need a 4kW installment. A 4kW installment would cost around Php 420,000 with 10 solar panels. This type of solar panel is usually used in the common household.

Installments of solar energy systems may be grand out of pocket. Bottom line: it is pricey. However, the return on Investments is very much efficient and optimizes the household budget. These solar panels have 25-50 years of lifespan. Effectively saving you 1,798,320 in 50 years or 35,966 annually.

From Lighting Up the Sky to Lighting Up Houses

The sun produces what we call photons. This element is the main character that is needed in acquiring solar energy. These photons are to penetrate a solar dish or a solar panel. 

From there, these photons are converted into usable energy and transported to the devices or equipment that need them. 

Solar panels are composed of solar cells. These cells are where photons are to penetrate. Every solar cell can produce half a voltage. If these cells are to work together, they can charge phones up to produce electricity for large-scale infrastructures.

IN PHOTO: CESCO Offshore Construction Services Incorporated Workers Installing the Solar Panels In Brgy. Bukal Hall, Nagcarlan in April 24, 2023

A good solar panel can utilize up to 20% of what it absorbs. Now this number may seem small however, given the number of solar cells in each panel, it is still able to power both private and public-owned infrastructures. 

What happens to the energy produced by the panels? Some of it is utilized but what happens to the excess produced? Net metering is the term used when excess energy is produced in solar panels. This excess energy then enters electrical lines and is utilized by other non-solar power buildings. In some cases, solar power system owners get paid for this and are also able to provide electricity to neighboring infrastructures at lower costs. 

Dissecting Solar Panels and the Tracker Systems

Now, what are solar tracking systems?

Contrary to popular belief, solar energy systems actually need rain for their maintenance. Rain helps in removing dust and dirt in the panels ensuring that it works most efficiently when sunlight is available. While it is true that solar energy gathers a decreased amount of energy, light is still able to penetrate through clouds. As long as there is sun to produce photons, solar energy panels are very much functional. 

As mentioned, a good solar panel can utilize up to 20% of what it absorbs. When the sun shines, photons are produced. These photons are what are converted into energy. Photons are first absorbed in the outer layer of the solar panels. 

Afterward, these photons are absorbed within the internal parts of the solar panels called “solar cells” which are made of silicon. The photons which are then being converted bounce within the panels and eventually penetrate again to the outer layer and flow to the appliance, gadget, or technology that demands power. 

Once the appliances use this energy, the used solar cell will then be transported back to the lower part of the panel and dispersed to be used once more. This way, nothing is used and then destroyed. Solar cells just rotate around the panels and efficiently convert photons into usable energy. 

Reference: Dhar, M., & Harvey, A. (2022). How do solar panels work?

The efficiency of solar panels is heavily reliant on the quality of these solar cells. There are already solar panels with 40-50% efficiency however, it is much more costly. A solar panel that is 20% efficient already does the job of powering structures considering the type of solar panel sufficient for the need of the system. 

Solar tracking installments on the other hand are solar panels that are able to track where photons are more likely to be absorbed. This system adjusts to the position of the panels according to where the sun is situated. This way, solar panels maximize the absorption of photons. 

San Carlos Sun Power Inc. 

Looking at the larger scale, the 1st ever renewable energy generation facility was the San Carlos Sun Power Inc. also known as SaCaSun. It was a project pioneered by AboitizPower and funded as a 3.8 billion Peso project. The project is successful at producing 59 MWp of utility-scale power energy. 

SaCaSun is reported to have prevented 44,000 tons of carbon dioxide over 20 years. Given the success of the project, the SacaSun is a 75-hectare area solar farm located in Brgy. Punao, San Carlos City, Negros Occidental.

The solar power system served the public starting March 9, 2016. This is following the project of the Department of Energy under the Feed-in-Tariff, a policy that supports initiatives that focus on the development of Philippine renewable energy resources.

Photo Source: AboitizPower

As of today, the SaCaSun solar power plant provides the Visayas grid with 85 gigawatt hours of clean, renewable electricity each year.

Looking at the long term contributions of this large scale project, what possibilities and opportunities could happen if small communities start converting to solar renewable energy?

The Solar PV battery Storage System

With the efficiency of the available solar cells in the market today, the existence of Solar PV battery Storage System becomes a helpful tool to many communities. Let’s shed light on the studies conducted by an alumnus of UPLB CEAT. 

In an interview with Engr. Adrian Sumalde, an Electrical Engineering graduate of the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UPD) and a former Assistant Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB), he shares the Solar PV battery Storage System “in the morning [the households] can charge [their] solar PV battery, so [they’re] just using their usual electricity, and then, if you ever may bagyo [storm] or whatever [they] can use their battery storage system as a backup.” 

Engr. Adrian Sumalde’s expertise is focused on electronics engineering and solar photovoltaics. He guided a study of the Solar Photovoltaic battery storage system of an Alumnus of UPLB and is now a Professor in Philippine Science High School-Main Campus as a Special Science Teacher.

Solar PV battery storage system enables the installment to store and use energy in a more convenient timing depending on the needs of a location. 

The dual-axis pointing system refers to the direction of the axis trackers. The axes can be classified into two: ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’. 

One axis helps the solar tracker to move from North to South (primary), and the other helps the tracker to move from East to West (secondary). 

Similar to solar trackers, the tracking system created by Javier tells the motor of the solar PV to move the solar panel to the direction where the sun is to acquire a higher amount of sunlight. 

“However,” Engr. Sumalde added, “if there’s something that the Philippines is still not yet pursuing, it’s alternative technology.”

One of the reasons why we are not yet pursuing it is because the most utilized material for solar technology in the Philippines is silicon but it has limited efficiency that is not enough to store and sustain electricity used by the households.

Silicon’s low sunlight-to-electrical energy efficiency is due to a property known as “bandgap.” A bandgap is an energy range in a solid where no electronic states exist.

If a bandgap exists, the semiconductor is prevented from converting higher energy photons, such as those emitted by green, blue, and yellow light waves, into electrical energy.

Moreover, the challenges of choosing solar PV compared to other renewable energy technology even though it is easy to install, according to Engr. Sumalde is the difficulty in finding the proper location to put it. 

With Javier’s study on a microcontroller-based solar tracker with a fixed geodesic dome brightness sensor—a size of a CCTV camera—the concerns in spatial occupancy are now addressed.

The Case of Nagcarlan Young Farmers

Last May 24, the Nagcarlan Young Farmers, assisted by the Center for Agrarian Reform, Empowerment and Transformation (CARET), installed their solar panels and solar tracking system in the barangay hall of Brgy. Bukal, Nagcarlan.

IN PHOTO: Members of Nagcarlan Young Farmers Operating their Solar Inverter Inside the Brgy. Bukal Hall

Headed by Wiljohn, the current Head of NYF, the amount of sunlight harnessed by the panels through the solar tracking system is monitored via a phone application.

IN PHOTO: Members of Nagcarlan Young Farmers Observing the Solar Inverter

“‘Yung tracker, kahit mahirap i-operate minsan dahil hindi naman kami sanay, nakakatulong pa [rin] kasi nakikita namin kung ano ang kapasidad ng kuryente namin.” says Wiljohn.

Last March, Javier’s study became the baseline of a research project by a UPLB CEAT student on a newly-improved microcontroller-based solar tracker with a fixed geodesic dome brightness sensor—-but now it has a single-axis and is more energy-efficient. 

With a more efficient solar tracking system, the young farmers of Nagcarlan are able to have access to renewable energy. This becomes a statement on the Return of Investment of installing solar panels and tracking systems.

As the Philippines ranks as a distant second in the South East Asia region in combined solar and wind power generation, Senate Bill No. 114 or Just Transition in Labor and Climate lobbied in 2022 can propel the Philippines to move further and be on top of the game.

By shedding light on the struggles of communities with off-grid electricity systems, the communities are powered up one at a time. 

Little by little, the transition to a ‘brighter’ and cleaner future comes closer than ever.