Starweek Magazine

Power to the People

udith S. Juntilla - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - As the new Zuellig office development, on the corner of Paseo de Roxas and Makati Avenue,  began to take shape early in 2012, it was apparent that the Makati skyline was in for something different.

The Zuellig Building was designed to be sustainable and environmentally responsible. But beyond the impressive façade and the cutting-edge technology is something much more meaningful: This building has a secret it shares with a small house in Sariaya, Quezon.

On the building’s rooftop are 132 Panasonic solar panels made from silicon wafers and ethyl vinyl acetate. The panels feed into an inverter that produces real-time energy for the offices of the building’s developer, Bridgebury Realty Corp., and supplements power from the commercial grid. A similar system, albeit significantly smaller, can be found on the rooftop of houses in various remote barangays in the country.

The company which set up the system is One Renewable Energy Enterprise, Inc. (OREE), an integrator specializing in fitting renewable energy systems for clients as diverse as a commercial building, a manufacturing plant and a farmer’s home.

OREE is an offshoot of Shell Solar Philippines. When Shell decided to de-prioritize their renewable energy business, veterans of the multinational’s renewable energy arm took it upon themselves to continue their work of bringing solar energy to those who needed it most.

The Zuellig Building (above) uses Panasonic’s HIT technology, one of the commercially available solar modules today. The solar panel system allows energy to be stored in batteries so that power from the sun can still be used at night.

Erel Narida’s group in Shell Solar Philippines specialized in the retail of solar energy systems to rural areas; together they built a network reaching as far north as Ifugao and down to Tawi-Tawi, bringing solar-powered energy to un-electrified homes across the country. When OREE was founded in 2008, Narida became its president and CEO.

“Not many people believe that solar works. (When) everybody looks at that P7-billion building and finds out that it uses solar power, we are proud to be a part of it. What applies for (something this) big can work for small (households),” he said.

The spread of solar power use in the country has been sluggish, owing to the manner in which projects were carried out and how lowest bidders cut back on after-sales service. One-time sales and the lack of diligence ended up with solar panels bogging down and being used as kulahan.

Then there are the long-held perceptions that solar home energy systems are difficult to use and involve a hefty investment. But prices have gone down significantly (OREE has units that cost as low as P1,800) and DIY packs can now be installed with greater ease.

These are but the obvious barriers to the spread of solar energy use. There are less commonplace reasons, but they are as insidious. In some cases, it is the lack of a sense of ownership. Because renewable energy has long been a hot-button topic and much money has been poured into efforts to get people to use renewable energy, people in some rural areas saw it as a dole out. “No one is really making sure that it’s working. They look at solar as something that is given for free,” Narida said.

OREE’s approach is to build a network of partners who are incentivized to keep people using the solar-powered systems. When Shell scaled down its renewable energy business, the network of people it had built remained. Narida said he talked to Shell if he could continue and fulfill Shell’s obligations and maintain the installations. Of the 15 partners he had already set up across the country, only half remained after a year. That, however, did not discourage Narida and his group because he knew they already had a head start.

Solar energy is now available to residents of Tabo-tabo, Negros Island (left) and members of the Marilog Solar Women Association from Davao City (above), bringing light to far-flung communities across the country.

“We continued to recruit and train people. We developed them into entrepreneurs. We gave them the technical capacity, enough so they could operate independently,” he said. The company works both in subsidized and unsubsidized markets, working with NGOs, cooperatives, microfinance institutions and LGUs to make inroads into un-electrified barangays and help rural folk be able to afford the initial outlay for the solar home energy systems.

Although OREE is a small company comprising only 14 people, it already has several partners and independent technical agents operating throughout the country. Such a strong presence in the field is important, and the biggest challenge for their operations is logistics.  “It takes a lot of hard work. If you’re not prepared, don’t go into this business.”

These rural retail solar home energy systems are hardly big-ticket projects; in most cases, they are financed through government projects and microfinance institutions. Yet they bring power to people who would find commercial power rates beyond their reach. Narida explained that keeping such a business model viable depends on many factors, one of which is maintaining profitability and transparency for their partners in the remote communities.

“In rural retail engagements, I always believed that the money is in volume,” he says.  “When they see that they can make money, they will stay with you and try and reach profitability. You do not confine the opportunity to make a living within the company. The others should also have that opportunity.”

This entails a lot of hard work in terms of educating users and maintaining relationships with partners. Nevertheless, it is important to keeping things viable.  “You have to educate and take care of your client. Our level of commitment to Mr. Zuellig is the same as to Mr. Marapatdapat in Tawi-Tawi,” Narida says.

Committing oneself to the nitty-gritty is also key to keeping people using solar energy, and after-sales service is important because it affects the attitudes of people toward loan payments for the units.

To this end, OREE trains freelance technicians on how to troubleshoot the solar home systems, at the same time enabling them to have an extra source of income from maintaining the units.

Given the challenges of bringing solar energy to remote households, Narida still believes that the more sustainable market is in rural retail.  “The need is there. The big projects enable us and give us the financial muscle to pursue rural retail,” he said.



he Zuellig Building is a big commercial project for OREE, one which Narida considers a showcase of the talent and skills of their 100 percent Filipino company.

“We are making it already a reference for present and future projects,” he says. Included in their future portfolio is the lighting of the Paseo de Roxas underpass in Makati City, a project with the Makati Commercial Estate Association, whose vice chairman Willy Coscolluela, the Zuellig Building’s architect, is responsible for the company’s introduction to the Zuelligs.

They are also setting up a solar-powered gas pumping station inside the Clark Freeport Zone and are set to fit a manufacturing plant with a solar energy system.

Strangely enough, the company experiences more openness to solar energy use with large commercial projects and un-electrified rural homes.

“Electrified homes have a bigger need for power; they have more appliances, which will need more power. Then it becomes a last priority when it comes to household spending. In rural areas, there’s really a need for it,” Narida says.

With companies, as in the case of Zuellig, the need went beyond power savings but to a real commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility.

“If there are ten more Zuelligs, we could probably go farther and reach more people,” Narida says.

The company’s income from the project was enough to pay off debts with suppliers and start on an even keel with other projects, several of which Narida thinks are worth sustaining.

He saw it for himself when they were rolling out a project in Palawan. The house where they were staying had yet to be electrified, and when the children came home from school, it was already dark, having walked several kilometers from the nearest school. “So the children set aside their bags, lit kerosene lamps, had supper with us and went to bed,” he recalls.

The next day, when Narida’s team had already installed the solar-powered lamps, the children were surprised to find their house already lighted. “The first thing the child did was to get his bag and open his books and do his assignments. Can you imagine this? This kid could one day be president of the country!” he says. “That burned into my heart, that we can do this.”


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