Harsh solar realities

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

I attended my first solar power trade show last Monday and like the glare from the sun, the trade show was a harsh reality for an idealist like me. With family and brother-in-law in tow, we trooped over to the SMX Convention Center and were pleasantly surprised to see such long lines of Filipinos eager to attend and learn from the “Solar & Storage” event even before 9 a.m.

At the very least, it proved that Filipinos want to learn and believe that solar energy can be beneficial to their daily lives. In terms of profile, those who attended were mostly middle to lower middle-class individuals in search of affordable or cheaper alternatives for electricity.

Judging from reactions and conversations, the show was technical nosebleed and overwhelming, with 95 percent of the booths and displays presenting solar panels, inverters, frames and cables, construction accessories, batteries, etc., almost all from China.

In fact, the presence of Chinese suppliers and companies was so much that you felt you were attending an exposition in China, not SMX. It was more of a supplier’s festival than a consumer event, unless the intended consumers were installers and service providers.

Many participants were targeting companies, business establishments and others were casting for potential dealers or local representatives. As I eavesdropped on the queries, the sentence often mentioned was “It’s too expensive” or “The minimum orders are too high, and the market is still undeveloped.”

Sadly, the trade show occupied two levels of the SMX Convention Center but only a small area of about 50 square meters was dedicated to information and education, where about five speakers each got 40 minutes to give a talk on “An introduction to photovoltaic solar panel installation,” “How to design a solar PV system,” “Creating a balanced inverter and component system,” “What is a hybrid inverter and storage system,” etc.

All those helpful information were provided by members of the Association of Solar Installers of the Philippines, but the space was so jampacked it was difficult to stand for hours, so we left.

What we thought was going to be a one-day excursion lasted only two hours as the technical nosebleed and disconnect got worse. In terms of takeaways, we observed that there was only one bank that participated in the event, which was BPI or Bank of the Philippine Islands.

We literally rushed to their booth on the ground floor to find out what programs they had for financing solar power system installation, but that too was disappointing because BPI simply provided a minimum funding of P400,000 under a “Housing Loan” category.

I figured that whoever came up with the loan package must have talked to several installers or colleagues in the bank who had installed solar power set-ups in their homes. As I mentioned in a previous column, providers we asked in the past averaged their estimates at P500K per house.

So, the system under consideration is for big houses and those in the A/B economic bracket, not for middle or lower middle class, farmers, producers or ordinary households, many of whom have asked online about systems that are in the P100,000 to P200,000 range.

I still choose to commend BPI for dipping a toe into the event because it may have helped to convince them that there is a large potential at the consumer level if they get out of the A/B rich enclave cluster.

Incidentally, we did see an “American” promoting his version of “rent to own” solar power set-up in the Visayas. The idea, as he explained it, was they would get the history of electric consumption and payments of an applicant, do the computations and if it fits, the homeowner will simply pay the average amount saved via solar power towards the installation and equipment.

Afterwards, someone I spoke with recalled the Agri-Agra Law that Senator Cynthia Villar, Congressman Junie Cua and former secretary Ben Diokno crafted and passed into law in 2022. The revised law requires banks to allocate 25 percent of available loans to agriculture and fisheries operations or cashflow.

I’m guessing that the law creates a more beneficial platform than the standard “housing loan” or “personal loan” which probably have higher interest rates and equity.

The problem with the Villar-Cua law is that it does not cover the households and backyard farms that provide the bulk of goods and services in agriculture. The law is excluding producers and contributors who could re-channel electricity payments to capital or goods as well as provide their own water distribution or irrigation needs.

Perhaps Senator Cynthia Villar might want to lead a movement for barangay communities to become independent solar power producers instead of being captive to fossil fuel generated electricity that is inefficient and extremely expensive. Many provincial barangays have large open spaces or can be interconnected as a community grid and be direct beneficiaries.

Still on the topic, conversations also touched on the discrepancy or imbalance in terms of incentives and legislated support. Someone pointed out that power generators and cooperatives all benefit from “system loss” support, Feed In Tariff or FIT that funds alternative sources of energy.

But nothing has been done to incentivize or reduce costs for acquisition of consumer level alternative power generation. While the government and politicians drag their feet on helping Filipino households and farmers, they are supporting big corporations and businesses to get a huge head start on solar energy development and eventually gain control of market and pricing yet again!

As harsh as the learning may have been, we managed to hook up with the installers group and we have resolved to go solar!

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