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In the PHL, what does the shift to renewable energy look like?

At the bottom of the Sierra Madre mountains sits a community that is sometimes forced to sit through the night without any electricity. The indigenous Dumagat Remontado community in Sitio Rawang, Tanay, Rizal, has yet to be connected to a centralized power grid, thus they use kerosene lamps, candles, or car batteries as a source of electricity. It gets difficult for them. 

Kerosene lamps are becoming quite expensive and harmful to the environment and even to one’s health in the long run. Thus, the tribe is in need of an alternative light source. This is why the Sustainable Outreach and Lifelong Advocacy to Rekindle (SOLAR) Hope organization aims to provide off-grid communities with solar technologies. 

One of the solar-powered lights installed by SOLAR Hope volunteers in Barangay Laiban, Tanay, Rizal Philippines (Photo: provided by SOLAR Hope documentation)

Founded by electrical engineer John Mark Napao in 2017, the organization has helped dozens of communities install cheap and clean solar energy systems. Since some installations are small-scale, people can volunteer for the organization—even those without technical knowledge. “If you have the heart or time you want to give, you’re welcome to join the outreach,” Napao says in Filipino. Sometimes, the organization even teaches community members how to install solar panels. “It’s like a plug-and-play system,” he explains. 

A SOLAR Hope volunteer gives a seminar on the installation of solar panels for the residents of Barangay Laiban, Tanay, Rizal, Philippines (Photo: provided by SOLAR Hope documentation)

Through clean and sustainable solutions, SOLAR Hope reduces rural communities’ worries about the costs and unpredictability of kerosene lamps. But while a valuable initiative, it will require concerted efforts for the country to shift from conventional energy sources to cleaner ones. 

A future in the works

Over the years, climatologists have made it clear that the world needs to transition to renewable energy soon to prevent runaway climate collapse. “We must end fossil fuel pollution and accelerate the renewable energy transition before we incinerate our only home…Transforming energy systems is low-hanging fruit,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in May at the launch of the World Meteorological Organization’s report titled State of the Global Climate 2021

Some people have been gravitating towards employment options that would help slow down climate change. For instance, during the day, Napao works at the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), a transmission service provider that bridges renewable energy and distribution utilities. Napao’s work at NGCP focuses more on the technical and engineering aspects of renewable energy rather than solar energy. “In our line of work, one of our considerations in the creation of transmission and substation projects is the entry of renewable generation plants,” he elaborates.

But while part-time dedication to the cause works for most people, some people pursue a career in the energy sector and want to work in an industry focused on driving the move to renewable energy.

For instance, SOLAR Hope volunteer Khenette De Leon has his sights set on working in the renewable energy sector. As a chemical engineering junior at Mapua University, he is interested in researching plant microbial fuel cells—a technology that derives electricity from plants. 

For De Leon, there is still much to be done to facilitate the country’s shift to clean energy systems, “I believe that the nation’s inverted progress on becoming less dependent on fossil fuel is a very alarming indicator of how much work is still needed to address this.”

Technology’s big role

Given the intermittence and weather dependence of renewable energy, accommodating the transition from fossil fuels to renewables can be a challenge for workers in the clean energy industry. With this, the technology used in adapting renewable energy faces constant improvements.

A study by the World Economic Forum in 2021 showed that artificial intelligence (AI) can accelerate this transition in an affordable yet efficient way.  AI can be used in collecting data on energy consumption and prices to predict future outcomes and to recognize certain weather patterns, which will be helpful in optimizing renewable energy consumption. 

In the Philippines, the Department of Trade and Industry has already begun mapping out its strategy for expanding the use of AI to improve research and development in various industries and to become more competitive in innovation. However, while the country’s AI roadmap may also assist in its transition to renewable energy, the people directly affected by this change should also be considered. 

Some may balk at integrating AI in the workplace, not just in the energy sector, because of its potential to diminish job opportunities. However, this may not be as big of a concern as it may seem. 

Alberto Dalusung III, the energy transition advisor of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, believes that because AI’s primary focus is on optimization, it “enables something that is not there now.” Dalusung adds that AI helps answer the questions of “How can the system be optimized?” and “How can you make this work?” It can assist in expanding sources of power from the grid and simply optimizing energy use in plants. 

With this in mind, De Leon notes that while certain manual and more time-consuming jobs may be lost to automation and AI, new jobs focused on machine maintenance or more complex operations may open up. 

Implementing the Green Jobs Act

In 2016, the Green Jobs Act was enacted in the Philippines. The law aims to promote sustainable growth, to create jobs, and to build resilience against climate impacts through incentives provided to companies generating green jobs or those contributing to preserving the environment.

But for it to be fully implemented, there must be cooperation among agencies such as the Department of Labor and Employment and the Climate Change Commission, says International Labour Organization’s InSIGHT2 National Project Coordinator Georgina Pascual. 

She adds that the criteria for determining what qualifies as a “green job” have yet to be finalized. “Without that, the law is just a pronouncement. It’s not going to be that impactful unless they can provide for very specific guidelines on how incentives can be granted and how companies can apply for that,” Pascual asserts.

Several considerations

The use of advanced technology during the transition to cleaner energy sources may make it harder for current fossil fuel workers to adjust to a more digitized environment. As the Philippines begins moving off fossil fuels and tapping into its abundant renewable energy potential, authorities should consider retraining and reskilling concerned workers. If done correctly, this will ensure that they do not suffer greatly from the shift. 

“The kind of people doing the current jobs in coal-fired power plants and gas-fired power plants can be trained for those jobs that they might find in a renewable energy power plant,” Dalusung says. He believes that Filipinos would be happy to take good employment opportunities after all. 

But it is not only the workers themselves that need to be considered when it comes to shifting. Before energy companies can even present such job opportunities, there must first be power plants in which these jobs can operate. 

Dalusong believes the key to improvement is changing the planning paradigm of the energy sector. According to him, power plants should not be centralized, especially since the Philippines is an archipelago. Once the power plants are built, more employment opportunities may be provided by companies.

And while they have yet to work full-time jobs in the renewable energy industry, workers can still participate in the transition now—not only through volunteering but also through educating themselves, especially with online resources. “Join these types of climate initiatives [like Solar Hope],” Napao suggests, “and make yourself more aware through joining available climate actions.”

SOLAR Hope volunteers alongside Barangay Laiban residents wrap up with a closing ceremony for the outreach program (Photo: provided by SOLAR Hope documentation)

By Krizchelle Wong

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