Too Much Sun and Sand, Yet Too Little Solar Energy

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On December 12, 2008, last year, the first ever solar-powered 40-foot Christmas tree in the Philippines was lighted at the Mall of Asia.  Thirty-five donated solar panels were installed, and energy-saving LED bulbs were used to optimize the solar power.  This was supposed to be a historic event, at least in the name of environmentalism, especially considering that the tree would have to stay alit in a country where Christmas is a month-long celebration.

And yet it seems that this solar-powered Christmas tree is long overdue for a tropical sunshiny country such as the Philippines.  We’ve had the sun forever in the country, and yet solar energy still remains confined in the realm of cute ceremonious events such as lighting a Christmas tree.  All that lovely energy hitting asphalt roads, tin roofs, our heads and backs—unutilized and wasted.

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Let’s admit it: when it gets hot in the Philippines, it really can get hot.  Ours is a country of extremes.  Which is understandable since the country lies almost smack on the equator where the sun’s rays hit jackpot.   This means that what the other countries above and below us (where the sun doesn’t beat down that much)—what the other temperate countries complain about as scorching heat, we Filipinos actually experience three-fold, and with good-natured tolerance.

With all this nationwide abundance sunshine, one would think the Philippines should have been big on solar energy a long time ago.  After all, the sun is free, up-for-grabs, just waiting to be trapped into solar panels, then converted back into useable electricity so that the average Filipino household can run a modest color TV, an electric fan, and some energy-saving light bulbs.

This is just not the case however since solar panels don’t come in cheap, what with erratic prices of silicon, which comprises 45% of a solar cell.  Silicon, essentially just sand, is the second most abundant element on Earth, and has to be refined to a purity of 99.99999% before it can be of any use as a semi-conductor in computer chips and solar cells.  But even if demand for silicon has grown alongside computer and solar industries, there are still fewer factories refining the stuff.  Thus the inflated prices.

A For Sale ad (posted June 29, 2009) on the Internet, for example, quotes P 80,835 for a complete set of solar panels, which harnesses only 100 watts of electricity.  Which is fine enough if all you’ll be using is 19” TV and a CD player combo (105 W).  Or a laptop, a 40-watt compact fluorescent lamp, a table fan and shaver combo (106 W).  (See for a calculator of solar energy use.)

At this rate you get a watt for every 800 pesos you invest.  So if you want to benefit from at least 1,000 watts of electricity, then prepare about a million pesos for your solar panels.  This, clearly, is not the scenario for the average Filipino household.

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Which leads us back to why up till now the wonderful potentials of solar energy remain untapped in the Philippines.  Put simply, it costs too much to but the solar panels and install them at your home.  Yes, it will pays for itself eventually.   Yes, solar power is clean and efficient and has no harmful emission to the environment unlike coal gas, and, again, the sun is free.  But who has the money in the first place?

While solar panels are still out-of-limits for the average Filipino’s purchasing power, Filipinos will have to learn to keep up with MERALCO electricity rates.

For now, solar panels are graciously donated by solar companies to far-flung barangays in the country where no power plant has reached yet, and who have, for decades, been depending on their trusty gas lamps.   After all, why should Filipinos have to put up with rising electricity bills when the sun is just out there willing to be tapped and well-meaning companies donate?

Or, if not to the barangays, the solar panels get donated to malls with a taste for giant Christmas trees.



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