First dive to bottom of PH trench

Emden Deep yields dirty secret in Philippine Trench: Trash

MANILA, Philippines — When Filipino oceanographer Deo Florence Onda and American explorer Victor Vescovo descended into the Emden Deep in the Philippine Trench, the third deepest point in the world, they were met with almost complete stillness.

At a depth of 10,045 meters, they peered through the small windows of the deep-sea submersible DSV Limiting Factor and watched their surroundings move as if in slow motion.

Vescovo was then surprised when he caught sight of two black eyes staring at them only to realize they belonged to a stuffed teddy bear.

Both he and Onda soon saw that more “travelers” had made the deep dive way before they did: Plastic bags and packaging, even clothes, were half-buried in the sediment.

“If in the beginning, I felt like I was on Mars, when I saw the garbage, I thought to myself, ‘Am I in Payatas?’” Onda told the Inquirer, referring to the landfill in Quezon City. “The sight brought me back to the reality that I’m still on Earth.”

The successful mission into the bowels of the Emden Deep on March 23 marked the first-ever deep dive in the Philippine Trench, a unique marine feature east of Mindanao, and the first-ever deep dive below 10,000 meters within Philippine waters.

While the expedition led by Caladan Oceanic, a private organization dedicated to advancing undersea technology, was not considered a marine scientific research activity, the explorers’ shocking discovery highlighted the worrying extent and impact of human activities on the planet.

Patches of garbage

A white plastic bag appears almost ghost-like amid the silence and darkness of the Emden Deep in the Philippine Trench. Explorers were surprised to see the extent of human contamination in the Emden Deep which, at 10,045 meters deep, is third deepest point in the world. Photo courtesy of Verola Media/Caladan Oceanic

Onda, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, said they began to catch glimpses of the trench’s bottom around four hours after their descent.

It was like an oceanographer’s book come to reality, watching science unfold before his eyes.

At a depth that is deeper than Mt. Everest is high, the Emden Deep appeared like a “ghost town,” he said, with sediments slowly floating away from them.

But as they explored the western wall of the trench, plastic bags, food packaging, even a pair of pants and shirts, would appear every five minutes or so.

“What I was expecting, because of the depth and high pressure there, were fragments of plastic. But they were so intact as if they just came from the supermarket,” Onda recalled.

Vescovo, the first to complete all deep dives in the five deepest points on the planet, said the human debris in the Emden Deep was “pretty extensive.”

“The greatest amount of contamination I’ve seen in any deep dive was at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, at the Calypso Deep, but the Emden Deep is the second largest,” he told the Inquirer. “In the Emden Deep, we saw scattered locations of human debris, isolated here and there. It was in pockets.”

The American explorer noted that materials do not degrade in the deep parts of the ocean, where there is no oxygen and sunlight. “People think that if they throw something into the ocean, it will just decompose over time.”

“But they are actually preserved,” he said.

From Hawaii, Pacific Islands

It remains unclear how the debris made its way to the Emden Deep. With the ocean currents, some of it could have drifted from Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, or coastal communities near the Philippine Trench such as Siargao Island, Onda said.

The garbage may also be from passing ships, with the Philippines near the world’s major shipping lanes, Vescovo noted.

Their discovery, however, underscored the connectivity not only of the world’s oceans, but also of any human activity to the planet, said Onda.

“The Philippine Trench is already so deep, but human pollution was still able to reach it. What more for shallower environments like coral reefs and seagrass beds?” he said. “[If we don’t do anything], I wouldn’t be surprised if I would get confused if I was in the Philippine Trench or in Manila Bay.”

While the expedition opened new scientific questions for him to pursue, Onda, a founding member of the Plastics Research Network, hoped that their worrying discovery would result in more stringent policies, not just on plastic use and waste management, but also on plastic production.

“We don’t expect the plastic problem to go away overnight,” he said. “But hopefully our stories will lead to behavioral change, with people seeing their connection to the problem.”

Oceans should not be seen as dumps for human waste, said Onda and Vescovo.

“Whatever we do will have an impact on our environment,” Onda said. “I hope what we’ve seen will be an inspiration for us to do something about the problem and in our own ways, contribute to the solution.” INQ

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Embracing the light: Churches tap solar power

MANILA, Philippines — In the past few years, Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of the Diocese of San Carlos in Negros Occidental has been at the frontline of a crusade waged both from the pulpit and on the streets.

Alminaza, 61, is part of the Philippine Catholic Church’s strong opposition to the use of fossil fuels in the country. And the threat to the diocese looms large: a proposed 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant in its coastal city.

But the bishop understands that beyond dialogues and campaigns, the Church can and should be doing more to demonstrate its seriousness in rejecting fossil fuels. “We cannot just oppose and oppose,” he says. “We have to be more proactive.”

Happily, their avowed intention shows.

In 2017, San Carlos became one of the first dioceses in the country to formally sign a partnership with an energy resource company to install solar panels on the roofs of three of its buildings, including the seat of the diocese, the San Carlos Borromeo Cathedral.

That they are blessed with sunshine is an understatement. Negros Island, already dubbed the renewable energy capital of the Philippines, has solar power comprising nearly half of its installed capacity mix, according to a 2020 scoping study by the think tank Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED).

Nationwide, more dioceses are pivoting toward solar energy to power up parish churches, schools and seminaries — both a manifestation of the Church’s commitment to a just transition to renewable energy sources, and a showcase of its call to the government to rethink energy policy amid the climate crisis that threatens the most vulnerable in its flock.

Care for common home

The Catholic Church in the Philippines, with 85 dioceses, is by no means an energy-intensive sector. But its vigorous campaign for the faithful to withdraw support from fossil fuels is seen as a potential inflection point in a country that continues to depend heavily on burning coal for power and energy needs.

The Philippines is home to the biggest Catholic population in Asia and the third largest in the world. Among 110 million Filipinos, at least 8 of 10 are Catholic, making of the Church a moral and political force.

The Church’s involvement in social justice and environmental issues is not new. Catholic priests and nuns have long taken their preaching to the streets, standing with communities against destructive activities such as illegal logging and large-scale mining.

These advocacies took a new dimension in 2015, when Pope Francis issued the “Laudato si,” his second encyclical that called for the “care for our common home.”

“There is a traditional belief that the Church should not meddle in social and environmental issues, that it only needs to focus on its role of giving the sacraments and celebrating the liturgies,” notes Fr. Edwin Gariguez, the former executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ National Secretariat for Social Action (CBCP-Nassa), the humanitarian and advocacy arm of the Church.

Gariguez adds: “But Pope Francis himself has said that we have a responsibility for social transformation, part of which is our obligation for the environment and to help the poor. And the ‘Laudato si’ is a mandate, an imperative from the Church.”

In his 180-page encyclical, the Pope lamented the destruction of the environment, explicitly mentioning fossil fuels as the factor behind the rapidly warming planet. “We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels—especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas—needs to be progressively replaced without delay,” he wrote.

Gariguez says this has been the big push for the global Catholic movement, including in the Philippines, to streamline its activities from education drives to signature petitions in an effort to bring awareness and pressure to governments to shift away from coal.

SHIFT TO RENEWABLES Catholic dioceses across the country are making a shift to solar energy to power up their buildings, from parishes to seminaries, convents and schools, such as St. Joseph College in Maasin City, Leyte province.

Mainstreaming the shift

While some Philippine parishes had individually moved to “solarize” and green their churches, Pope Francis’ clarion call prompted the Church’s national leadership to mainstream the shift toward clean and renewable energy.

In October 2016, the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on the Lay Apostolate, with its implementing arm Sangguniang Laiko ng Pilipinas, entered a partnership with WeGen Laudato Si Inc., a special-purpose company formed by WeGen Distributed Energy taking inspiration from the Pope to work closely with faith groups in the country.

A distributed energy resource company, WeGen operates in the Philippines and in Vietnam, focusing on renewable energy technologies, particularly solar energy.

Aside from the goal shared by the Church and the company, what speeded up this partnership was a bridge: Jun Cruz, the director of relations of WeGen Laudato Si and a member of Laiko.

Facilitated by Cruz, a memorandum of agreement was signed to assist Catholic dioceses interested in using solar power for their buildings.

Each diocese being autonomous and self-reliant, WeGen Laudato Si spoke with individual bishops to pitch the benefits of harnessing the sun’s energy for their power needs.

Their efforts in the last five years appear successful. WeGen Laudato Si has sealed partnerships with 74 of the 85 dioceses. Solar panels have been installed in nearly 200 religious or Church-owned buildings in at least 45 dioceses from the Prelature of Batanes in the north to the war-torn Prelature of Marawi down south.

World’s first

The biggest project so far is in the Diocese of Maasin on Leyte Island which, in 2018, became the first diocese in the world to completely shift to solar energy use.

The Vatican commended the diocese for this effort during the 5th anniversary of “Laudato si” last year.

The installed solar panels in 42 parishes and a school building has a system size of 234 kilowatt peak (kWp). Bishop Precioso Cantillas has said that shifting to solar allowed them to save at least P100,000 a month in power bills—resources that the Church can funnel into its other socio-civic activities.

At the Diocese of San Carlos, Alminaza says they have yet to fully calculate their savings from the installed 12-kWp system in their buildings. As in other dioceses, their system does not have battery storage and is still tied to the grid. This means that during the day, the solar panels power up their buildings, but their energy consumption is hooked back to the existing power grid once the sun sets.

The technology for battery storage remains expensive, pushing dioceses to forgo this option.

WeGen Laudato Si’s solar panels on rooftops may pale in comparison to huge solar farms that generate megawatts of electricity, but this is exactly how they envisioned their work to be, says Cruz.

“Our projects are small compared to other companies,” he says. “But even if it’s a small parish on an island that only requires 3 kWp, we install our panels because our vision is really clean and affordable energy, anytime, everywhere, for everyone.”

Other players

Other companies tried to strike similar deals with the Church to provide solar panels to dioceses, Gariguez recalls. None has prospered, he notes, perhaps given the challenges of dealing with individual prelates in dioceses that are smaller, far-flung, and with less resources.

“For a company that is profit-driven, the Church may not be as appealing” to do business with, Gariguez says. “But if there will be other players who can offer cheaper prices, then it will encourage competition, and it’s the parishes that stand to gain.”

With WeGen Laudato Si, Church leaders are presented cost-benefit analyses and financial studies based on the diocese’s power needs and capacity to pay, says Cruz.

Most, if not all, of their projects offer no cash-out and have payment terms that can extend to 15 years.

Such a setup does not allow for a quick return of investment, with the company spending at least P70,000 per installed kilowatt peak, Cruz says.

“From the start, we [tell] them that we are a business and not a nongovernmental organization,” he says. “Solar panel systems may still be expensive, but they are definitely cheaper now…

With the panels installed, we explain to the Church leaders that whatever they can save from their electricity bills, instead of paying it to a distribution company, they can use it to pay us.”

SHINING ON THE FLOCK Encouraged by Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato si,’” the Catholic Church in the Philippines has been pivoting to solar energy one parish at a time. In Malabon City, San Bartolome Parish Church has installed solar panels on its rooftop.

Hit by pandemic

But even with the options offered by the energy firm, many dioceses are still reeling from the financial hit of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdowns require the faithful to stay home, resulting in massive reductions in Mass collections that are the primary source of funding for the parishes.

“I think there is no longer an argument on the shift to renewable energy for the protection of the environment,” says Fr. Antonio Labiao, the current executive secretary of CBCP-Nassa. “I think what our priests and lay leaders are more concerned with is the cost.”

“Many of our dioceses now, especially in the provinces, are struggling to survive. So pushing for the implementation of solar energy might take some time,” he says.

But the pandemic may just lead the country to pursue a cleaner energy pathway, environment experts and advocates say.

“The pandemic is an opportunity for green recovery, a just recovery,” says lawyer Avril de Torres, head of the CEED’s research, policy and law program. “This must focus on reformulating energy plans, so we don’t go back to the ways of the past and we move forward by being powered by renewable energy.”

Department of Energy data show that the Philippines is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil, for its energy needs. There are 28 coal-fired power plants nationwide, with an existing capacity of 9.88 gigawatts. At least 19 other coal plants remain in the pipeline, putting the Philippines among the top countries in coal expansion.

Renewable energy advocates are hopeful that the pandemic will give wind to the shift to sustainable energy, especially with consumers burdened with high electricity bills and communities with coal plants clamoring for urgent change, says De Torres.

“There are a lot of renewable energy mechanisms that will become effective, that we are hopeful for… but unless there is a clear phaseout policy, renewable energy cannot displace coal,” she says.

Symbolic to concrete

As Filipinos face more supertyphoons and intense droughts each year, the Catholic movement toward cleaner energy further crosses from symbolic deeds to concrete actions.

Beyond their shift to solar power, Catholic dioceses and other faith groups have moved forward to demand that banks and other financial institutions withdraw their investments from coal and fossil fuel industries. A number of bigger dioceses and religious groups sit as top shareholders in these institutions.

“We are happy that there are so many Catholic dioceses that are already putting up solar panels, but it should not stop there,” says Rodne Galicha, executive director of the interfaith movement Living Laudato Si Philippines. “You cannot just put solar panels and not [urge] companies and parishioners to not patronize services and products that are harmful to the environment.”

In Catholic-majority Philippines, the groundwork is set, says Galicha, with the Church possessing the machinery and architecture to influence the conversation on energy democracy and environment protection.

But for actual changes to take effect, the collective action of the faithful, not just the chosen few, is needed—and this is not expected to be done overnight.

As he envisions a more sustainable energy path for his diocese and the entire Negros Island, Alminaza believes that Church leaders like him can truly make a difference and rally their flock behind a good cause: the survival of the planet, of which humans are the stewards.

“The challenge I see is for the Catholic population to wake up,” he says. “Ecological conversion takes a while… and even with consecutive calamities, people don’t see yet the connection [of our actions to the planet].”

“But we cannot say we love God,” he says, “and then neglect and keep destroying the environment.” INQ

This report was written and produced as part of a media skills development program delivered by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.–Ed.

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The Philippines lags in global push for renewables

The Philippines has been slow to action and way behind its commitments to global initiatives on reducing or avoiding gas emissions harmful to the environment, despite the existence of many laws seeking to promote the use of renewable energy sources. 

Instead of attracting investors in power projects run by non fossil fuels, the current regulatory environment has only discouraged foreign capital and even pushed big local players to put their money outside the country where the investment climate for renewable energy is considered “more hospitable.”

Globally, a lot is riding not only on turning to renewable forms of electricity generation, but also on moving away from fossil fuels such as coal and oil, and even natural gas, as the entire world has its sights on the 2050 goal of having greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduced to a net zero and limit global warming.

Against this backdrop, the Philippines appears to be gripped by inertia, especially when viewed along with the equally lofty goals of providing access to electricity for all and providing each household a choice of consuming electricity produced by renewable energy technology.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), based in France, notes that more and more countries are announcing pledges to achieve net-zero emissions—or balancing the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere with the amount of emission removed or avoided.

But the IEA says that even if fully achieved, these pledges so far put forward by governments fall well short of what is required to achieve net zero by 2050.

For the Philippines, the government in April 2021 committed to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change to reduce and avoid 75 percent of GHG emissions for the period 2020-2030. This goal covers the sectors of energy, transport, industry, agriculture and wastes.

The big “but” is that only 2.71 percentage point of this goal is unconditional, which the Philippines can do on its own. The main part, or 72.29 percentage points, is conditional. This means that its policies and measures will have to conform with the Paris Agreement, the international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015.

Legal framework

Thus far, the Philippines’ toolbox that is helping these efforts include the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, the Biofuels Act of 2006, the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, the Climate Change Act of 2009, and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act.

Last month, amid mounting criticism of failing to address a rising threat of power shortage, the Department of Energy (DOE) said that over the past five years, it had completed the mechanisms under the Renewable Energy Act to facilitate greater private sector investments in renewables. These include the traditional ones—hydro and geothermal—as well as solar photovoltaic, wind and biomass.

One facet of this that the DOE is drumming up is the participation of consumers by producing on their own the electricity that they need, or to choose renewable energy as the source of electricity delivered to their premises.  

The mechanisms, the DOE said, include the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) policy, Green Energy Option Program (GEOP) policy and Enhanced Net-Metering System. These three, among others, are geared toward achieving a 35-percent share of renewable energy in the country’s power generation mix by 2030. 

The RPS is a market-based policy mechanism that requires power utilities to increase the use of renewable energy by 1 percent a year beginning in 2020 until 2030. The GEOP provides end-users the option to choose renewable energy facilities as their source of energy. Meanwhile, the net metering program enables ordinary electricity consumers to become a “prosumer,” with the ability to generate electricity for their own consumption and sell any excess generation to the distribution grid.

Wrong direction

According to Noel Estoperez, professor at Mindanao State University’s Iligan Institute of Technology, power generation using renewable energy started in the Philippines in 1913 with the 560-kilowatt Camp John Hay hydroelectric power plant that was developed by missionaries. As this flourished, hydro power was nationalized 23 years later through the law that also created National Power Corp. (Napocor).

Geothermal power came much later in 1979 in Tiwi, Albay. According to Guido Delgado, former president of Napocor, this facility that was initially rated at 55 megawatts and three years later at 330 MW, took 12 years to achieve commercial operations starting from a ceremonial lighting held in 1967.

After decades of incubation as a technology, solar and wind power started delivering to the Philippine grid in 2005. Biomass followed suit in 2009.

But in the Philippine Energy Plan 2018-2040, which was not finalized until November 2020, the energy department reiterates its stance of maintaining a “technology neutral approach” for an optimal energy mix.

This is explained as giving priority to “a reliable, sustainable and affordable energy mix” that will meet the country’s supply needs.

As of 2020, the share of renewable energy in the power mix was 29.2 percent, or 6,825 MW out of 23,410 MW of dependable generating capacity. The DOE defines dependable capacity as the capacity that “can be relied upon” or the performance that a power plant can actually deliver vis-à-vis its installed or nameplate capacity. This was a reduction from 32.5 percent in 2005 when solar and wind debuted in the mix and total dependable capacity across the archipelago was 13,595 MW.

Over the same 15-year period, the share of coal-fired power plants alone jumped to 43.8 percent (10,245 MW) from 25.2 percent (3,432 MW). Apparently, coal-based power may not be ecologically sustainable, but it is reliable and affordable.

Coal-based plants run round the clock as baseload facilities to cover the minimum demand while renewable energy facilities are dispatched mid-merit at best, to augment the baseload output when consumption kicks up. Also, power produced by coal-based energy arguably remains to be the lowest-cost for consumers.

Oil-based power plants—mainly used in small islands and also for additional capacity when demand peaks—accounted for 13 percent (3,054 MW) in 2020. In 2005, oil’s share was higher at 22.4 percent (3,403 MW). 

Rounding up the fossil fuels that fire up generators is natural gas—also used for baseload plants—which represented 14 percent of total dependable capacity in 2020 (3,286 MW), going down from 19.9 percent (2,703 MW) in 2005.

In terms of actual output, renewable energy technologies accounted for 21.2 percent or 21,609 gigawatt-hours out of a total of 101,609 gWh in 2020. This was lower than the 32.4-percent share in 2005, when renewables generated 18,609 gWh out of a total of 56,568 gWh. That was the first year when renewables were part of the power generation mix, with a combined 19 gWh from solar and wind. Biomass power plants came online only in 2009.

Policy backlash

This technology-neutral policy is, in fact, a double-edge sword. On the one hand, neutrality means not promoting any technology such as renewables. The result is the end of subsidies for renewable energy platforms, particularly solar and wind power, at a time of healthy investor interest.

As recently as 2019, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi was reiterating that power-generation projects should be competitive rather than dependent on incentives such as the Energy Regulatory Commission-approved Feed-in Tariff rates and guaranteed dispatch—which are forms of government subsidy.

One result of this policy materialized in the form of big renewable energy facilities abroad that are backed by local companies, and foreign companies looking at other markets instead of the Philippines. 

In April 2019, the Ayala group’s power generation platform AC Energy (Acen) marked the commercial operation of its first project in Vietnam. This was the $294-million, 330-MW Ninh Thuan solar farm, a joint venture with Vietnamese partner BIM Group.

Fernando Zobel de Ayala, president of Ayala Corp., who attended the ceremonial switch on, described the project as “a very large and meaningful investment” for Acen.

“Vietnam’s government has been very aggressive in attracting investments in renewables, particularly solar and wind,” Zobel said back then, noting that the Ninh Thuan facility was part of a renewable energy boom in Vietnam.

Eric Francia, president and chief executive of Acen,  would be echoing this as recently as last month, when he said: “Vietnam is an ideal place for sustainable investments as it leads the race to clean energy transition in the post-COVID world.” 

Over the next two years from the inauguration of the Ninh Thuan solar farm, Acen would announce renewable energy-related partnerships in India and Australia.

Other Philippine players such as the Aboitiz group are taking steps in the same direction. Aboitiz Power Corp., which had also explored Vietnam, is looking at opportunities in Indonesia.

More coal plants  

The Philippines’ policy of neutrality in power generation technology, on the other hand, also means not discouraging any technology such as coal-fired plants. Advocacy groups like the Center for Energy, Ecology and Development call for a ban, despite the coal industry flexing “clean coal technology” innovations through high-efficiency, low-emission generators in tandem with “carbon capture storage and utilization.”

Also in 2019, Cusi told the committee on appropriations at the House of Representatives that a “moratorium on any technology is a disservice to our country.” On Oct. 27, 2020, the DOE chief would announce at an international forum that the government has decided on a moratorium on new coal projects.

The DOE would take almost three months, releasing in mid-January 2021 a written advisory that spelled out the policy. The umbrella group Power for People (P4P) Coalition finds this “underwhelming” considering that the ban was about no longer accepting new applications for endorsement of coal projects, instead of outrightly disallowing the construction of any new coal-fired facility.

According to P4P, there are at least 8,070 MW of coal-based generating capacity in the pipeline that will still be left untouched by the DOE’s “alleged effort to pursue a more sustainable power sector.”

In a 2018 report on its assessment of the Philippine energy sector, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) notes that compared to fossil fuel-based power generation, the permitting process for renewable energy development is more complex.

For one, the issuance of a Renewable Energy Service Contract must undergo a competitive selection process. Also, incentives for renewable energy such as duty-free importation and income tax reduction can be accessed only after the project has been issued the contract.

“The same regulations and permitting processes are applied to all renewable energy projects whether large or small scale, including renewable energy deployment in mini-grids to enhance energy access in areas that are not yet energized or that receive limited power supply,” the ADB said.

“The transaction cost and time for undergoing such lengthy regulatory processes can make smaller renewable energy projects unattractive to investors,” it adds.

Not enough

Still, the DOE has lists of “awarded” renewable projects, those that have been green lit and which include projects in predevelopment and ongoing development stages.

In terms of potential generating capacity, these projects total 11,284.92 MW of hydro; 814.2 MW of geothermal; 11,892.31 MW of solar; 5,760.58 MW of wind, and 182.03 MW of biomass. All in all, these represent 29,034.04 MW of additional capacity for the entire Philippines.

Assuming that all these projects are realized, they will cover almost a third of the additional 90,584 MW that the country needs in order to meet the projected peak electricity demand in 2040 under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario.

But in a clean energy scenario (CES), the Philippines needs more additional installed capacity at 93,482 MW.

“The high requirement for additional capacity in the CES is attributed to having more renewables in the system, specifically solar and wind that are considered variable capacity,” the PEP 2020-2040 explains.

This downplays a generator’s capacity as described by the manufacturers—thus called “installed capacity” or “nameplate capacity.” It is more practical to look at the dependable capacity, much more so with solar and wind, considering that these are intermittent and dependent respectively on the intensity of sunlight and the movement of air.

Also, the PEP 2020-2040 clarifies that the CES does not mean all-renewable. In fact, the scenario takes into account capacity contribution from natural gas—crude oil’s twin and coal’s less-polluting cousin—and “other low-carbon and highly efficient technologies.” This latter part suggests that coal remains in play.

Further, the two-decade plan tags the investment cost of the needed additional capacity under the BAU scenario at $104.7 billion. The cost of additional build needed for the CES is $124 billion, higher by 18 percent.

And this is partly why industry players balk at the idea of a swift and wholesale shift to clean energy, despite civil society’s assertion that the technologies and natural resources are readily available to make the transition.

Expensive technology

“I think, at the end of the day, there must be a commercial basis as to the choice between coal and [natural] gas for example or even renewables, and at the same time we are mindful of the power rates that we will charge to the consumers,” Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) chair Manuel V. Pangilinan says at a press briefing held last July.

Not only is Meralco the biggest electricity distributor in the Philippines, it is also building up a considerable presence in power generation.

“It’s alright to talk about renewables and gas, but if it translates into higher prices, that obviously will be met with some resistance, particularly politically,” Pangilinan points out.

Additionally, Pangilinan argues that the shift to renewables is a difficult choice, especially if the question of “who will pay for the cost of migration” is left unclear.

“I wish it were [an easy choice], but renewables don’t provide the kind of capacity that will supply the reserves that we need moving forward,” he adds. “I don’t think it’s a clear-cut case for renewables.”

In other words, the question is about balancing the cost against the pace of the energy shift. Currently, coal and gas cover Meralco’s baseload supply needs while renewables are primed to exclusively provide the company’s mid-merit requirements—which represent 29 percent of contracted capacity.

Meralco has also made a commitment to invest in and develop at least 1,500 MW of renewable energy projects over the next five to seven years.

Ray Espinosa, president of Meralco, points out that considering the prevailing sentiment to move away from coal, the burden of providing baseload supply falls on natural gas —now considered as the “transition fuel,” since it is cleaner than coal albeit still formed from fossils and thus rich in carbon.

Coal-free target

Indeed, other players like the Ayala group have set a goal of having their power-generation business coal-free by 2030. In 2019, AC Energy and Infrastructure Corp. completed the divestment of its 60-percent interest in the 632-MW GNPower Mariveles coal-fired plant in Bataan. This was sold to its partner, the Aboitiz group.

Ayala is in the process of offloading its 85-percent interest in the 552-MW GNPower Kauswagan coal-fired plant in Lanao del Norte; the remaining 35-percent stake in the 244-MW coal-fired plant of South Luzon Thermal Energy Corp. in Batangas, and the 40-percent stake in the 1,336-MW coal-fired plant of GNPower Dinginin in Bataan.

The Aboitiz group itself has announced a P190-billion investment program to achieve a 50-50 balance in its renewables business and its conventional thermal generator assets.

“If decarbonizing the system is the goal, Meralco cannot do it alone without working with the rest of the power industry and of course with the government,” Pangilinan said. “Government has got to participate in that transition, which will be painful if done in a short timeframe.”

Alas, P4P, the consumer welfare coalition, laments the continued nonmention of the energy sector in President Duterte’s latest and final State-of the Nation Address last month.

Achievable goal

According to the IEA, global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to reach new record levels starting 2023 amid government spending shortfalls in the transition to clean energy, especially in emerging and developing economies.

“Since the COVID-19 crisis erupted, many governments may have talked about the importance of building back better for a cleaner future, but many of them are yet to put their money where their mouth is,” Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA, said in a statement.

“Despite increased climate ambitions, the amount of economic recovery funds being spent on clean energy is just a small sliver of the total,” Birol said.

Based on an analysis of 800 national policies including several that are implemented by the Philippine government, the agency found that governments have mobilized $16 trillion in fiscal support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. However, only 2 percent or about $320 billion of the total is earmarked for clean energy transitions.

“Not only is clean energy investment still far from what’s needed to put the world on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century, it’s not even enough to prevent global emissions from surging to a new record,” Birol said.

Birol said the path to net-zero emission by 2050 “is narrow but still achievable,” but governments must act now by leading clean energy investment and deployment “to much greater heights beyond the [pandemic] recovery period.

This story, originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters. 

Trouble in paradise

A single mother, Atelma Jacosalem Familara used to feed her family by working as a massage therapist for weary tourists at Boracay, the Philippines’ most popular beach destination that is located in Malay town, Aklan province.

Atelma lost her job earlier this month. The spa she worked for was shut down due to the lack of proper permits. Shortly after, environmental officials issued notices for her to vacate her family’s bamboo-made house that sits on one of almost a dozen wetlands, which were said to have been reclaimed.

The businessmen have money at the bank, but we don’t. Can the government sustain us, the poor?

Boracay natives are the most likely to suffer from President Rodrigo Duterte’s abrupt order to halt the entry of tourists starting April 26, 2018, and pave way for the six-month rehabilitation program.

The resort island has contributed P56.14 billion (US$10.7 billion) to the economy and provided jobs to 17,328 registered local and foreign workers as well as 19,289 unregistered workers in 2017.

Atelma’s brother Thiting Jacosalem told Manila Bulletin that she could not sleep and stopped eating on the night she lost her job.

Anxiety grew as it dawned on the family that, with the island’s closure on April 26, it would be improbable to sustain her family.

The 42-year-old mother, who lost her husband to terminal illness five years ago, turned to the Bible and somehow drew strength from it, as she went around her neighborhood spreading the word of God.

“Kumakapit na lang siya sa panalangin kasi wala na siyang maasahan na iba (She’s praying for Divine Intervention. She has no one to turn to),” he added hours after social workers picked up Atelma and took her to a treatment center in the mainland.

Her plight is only all too familiar in Boracay.

The government’s crackdown to reverse the environmental damage to the resort island dubbed as “Asia’s 24/7” destination is beginning to upend the daily life of an estimated 56,444 residents.

“Sabi dati ni President Duterte, dapat mayroong malasakit. Ang tanong ngayon: Saan ang malasakit sa kapwa? Sa mga mahihirap? (President Duterte previously said there should be compassion. The question is: Where is the compassion for your fellow human being? For the poor?),” said Ron Degayo, a 39-year-old motorcycle driver.

“Daw kulang nalang silingon sang Presidente nga mag halin na kami diri sa Boracay (It’s short of saying the President want us to leave Boracay),” added Hilton Gelito, a 53-year-old native.


Boracay before rehabilitation. Sewage water flows directly to the beach, affecting water quality and increasing levels of coliform bacteria. Source: Czar Dancel

The pollution of Philippines’ most popular beach attraction brings to light the government’s failure to enforce existing regulations, which could have curbed its environmental degradation.

President Duterte’s description of Boracay as “cesspool” came from videos showing untreated wastewater being dumped into the sea from the island’s back beach, an area that is popular among foreigners for water kite surfing.

This came almost two months after Boracay experienced its worst flooding in history. Before Christmas in 2017, continuous rainfall flooded almost 90 percent of the island.

Inspectors found that businesses such as hotels, resorts and restaurants were illegally connected to the drainage system. Instead of only handling wastewater, it was also carrying waste.
There’s also the garbage problem.

In 2017, the Malay local government had to haul off more than 20,000-30,000 kilograms of trash from Boracay to the mainland after both tourists and residents complained of foul odour and health risks from uncollected garbage.

The construction of structures in areas considered as forestlands is also questionable. Of the 377.68 hectares of forestland area in this island, at least 90.61 hectares have land titles while 287.06 hectares are not titled.

Several establishments were also found to have violated easement rules, built structures that were less than 30 metres from the shoreline along the famous white-sand beach, while also encroaching the access roads. Several local residents, who requested anonymity, blamed local government officials as well as those from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Tourism (DOT) for allowing investors to build in no-build zones.

Many claimed that corruption tempted some officials to wantonly issue permits to operate or build at the expense of the environment and upkeep of this island.


With the closure, it is estimated that 36,617 workers in Boracay will lose their jobs.

Shienna Caigoy, a 26-year-old waitress at one of the posh resorts, said she will have no choice but to go back to her hometown in Nabas, Aklan.

Not having reached regular working status, she will not qualify for the almost P2 billion (US$38.2 million) fund that will be distributed by the government to tide over Boracay’s displaced workers.
Dianaluz Señeres Tolentino is set to lose P21,000 (US$401.49) per month from workers renting rooms in her modest boarding house.

Worse, Dianaluz is worried that her residence, which she inherited from her parents, might be demolished by the government’s rehabilitation team.


What is breaking the hearts of local residents is that the closure order will affect most individuals who have done nothing wrong to cause the problem in Boracay.

Resident Dan Gelito said that President Duterte should have thoroughly thought of his decision and only went after the violators. Dan pointed out that he spent P40,000 (US$764.66) so his house can legally connect to the sewage system while big businesses have been left untouched.

“Mga negosyante may kwarta sa bangko pero kami wala. Wala sila labot kon six months o pila ka tuig magsarado. Ang gobyerno, maka sustain bala sa amon nga imol? (The businessmen have money at the bank, but we don’t. Can the government sustain us, the poor?),” lamented the 54-year-old.

Even the 58-year-old tribal chieftain of the Ati indigenous group expressed dismay about President Duterte’s decision. Delsa Justo said several Ati families are already feeling the burden of the closure. Ati men, who were hired as construction workers, were laid off and are scrambling where to find money to feed their children.


A few days before the formal opening, Boracay is seen here in its rehabilitated state. The beachfront is cleaner, the water is more pristine and new rules are imposed. Source: Yvette Fernandez

With only a few days before the closure, Boracay locals can only hope that the government can realistically achieve the rehabilitation program.
In a mixture of Tagalog and English, Johnny Sacapaño said that he is supportive of the clean-up drive as long as it is done properly.
“Ang dumi talaga ng Boracay (Boracay is very dirty),” he noted.
For the 65-year-old, the time has come to properly enforce the law and regain what was lost in Boracay for the past 40 years.
“Dapat tuloy-tuloy ang rehabilitasyon at sulit din yung sakripisyo namin (The rehabilitation should be continuous and that our sacrifices will be worth it),” Johnny concluded.
This hope was ultimately realised.
A few days before the official opening of Boracay, the Task Force in charge of the island laid out new rules and regulations for both business establishments and tourists.
Despite the cost that the closure had on livelihoods, Boracay’s successful rehabilitation shows that with political backing, cleaning the environment is not an insurmountable challenge.

This story by Tara Yap was originally published by The Manila Bulletin on Aug 22, 2018.

On the last day before the closure of Boracay, Tara Yap reported the unhappiness of locals about the devastation it would have on their livelihoods. Published on Aug 22, 2018, the article is one of a series of features by the Manila Bulletin, that extensively documented the impact that the six-month closure with journalists from various beats – tourism, the environment and labour. In wake of President Duterte’s shock decision to close the island, a team of reporters from the Manila Bulletin interviewed stakeholders ranging from government agencies to public transportation drivers. Through a series of stories following the island’s transformation, the publication quelled rumours about the ‘real’ reason for the island’s closure, including the purported construction of a casino complex by a foreign company. Their efforts to hold government agencies to account proved successful in Boracay’s eventual restoration.

Inside the battle of Marawi

‘Falcon,’ a Marine sniper, recalls how his companions died as they tried to reclaim the Mapandi bridge from the Maute group – Isis-inspired terrorists – amid the five-month-long conflict in Marawi City in the southern Philippines that started May 2017.

Just a few hours past midnight, when the Marine troops tried to advance from the bridge toward a street surrounded by buildings, terrorists unleashed a storm of heavy gunfire, grenades and molotov cocktails. The firefight lasted 14 hours.

Despite the difficulty of getting through an area of terrorist-infested buildings, the valiant troops did not give up. Instead, they tried to enter the Mapandi area through a much farther bridge.

The Marines were eventually able to retake the bridge in at least two months, a turning point in the war that allowed the military to bring in more troops and supplies to the main battle area.

The bridge also became a key route used to transport rescued civilians and wounded soldiers, said Army Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Task Force Marawi.

The experience made Falcon and Brawner realise the difficulties of urban warfare. The sniper added that most Marines were trained for thick jungle battles but not for fighting in cities.


The sound of bombs raining and flattening Marawi impaired the hearing of 78-year-old ‘Nanay Linda,’ who spent the whole five months in the hands of the terrorists.

Nanay Linda, a retired health worker, was among the hostages taken at nightfall on May 23.

That night, Nanay Linda recalled, they were taken in a van with teachers abducted from Dansalan College.

The reconstruction of the 24 most affected villages inside the 250-hectare land that used to be the main battle area would require an estimated P48 billion (US$927.2 million).

Nanay Linda said there were times Omar Maute, a terrorist leader, visited the building where they were held captive. An alumnus of Dansalan College, Maute would always talk to his former school principal about the good old days.

Maute assured the captives they would not be killed since they only wanted the military to withdraw its forces, Nanay Linda recounted.

What stuck with Nanay Linda from the conflict was the relentless bombing that led to flattened buildings and dead bodies.

“It was always raining bombs until almost all of the structures there were flattened,” she said.

For months, Nanay Linda and her fellow captives ran from building to building to avoid the bombs, while praying to the heavens that they would not be hit.

Until one day, no bombs fell from the sky.


Three weeks before the military announced the end of combat operations, the hopes of Nanay Linda and the rest of the captives lifted as a drone arrived. By then, the captors let their guard down as supplies were depleted and fatigue set in.

With a lipstick, one of the captives scribbled the word “help” on a cloth, hoping the drone would heed their call. And through the drone, the military handed them a phone, with an escape plan the captives pursued by dawn.

The captives ran until they were able to board a military safe vehicle, and were later brought to a safe house, staying there for eight days before they were allowed to go home.

However, much of the town was already flattened by the bombing, with many losing their homes in the process.

Townsfolk, like ‘barangay’ – meaning village – chief Bashir Manri, looked heartbroken as he stood atop what that used to be a lively park in the city’s centre, looking for this house.

“I looked for my home first. But I couldn’t even recognise our place because of the damage. I can no longer recognise home,” he said.


Even the powerful clans in Marawi were not spared by the destruction.

Provincial government official Zia Alonto Adiong broke down in tears when he saw the devastation that turned their ancestral house into a pile of broken stones and twisted steel.

Adiong’s grandfather, the late senator Domacao Alonto, began to build the house in Panganuran village in the 1950s. Their residence was treated as an open house, as Maranaos freely entered the compound on many occasions.

He said the family has yet to discuss how to rebuild their ancestral house. He has proposed retaining a portion of the ruins as a marker for people to see, a reminder to the next generation of the destructive power of hatred.

Simultaneous calls for prayer from towering minarets scattered throughout central Marawi used to wake up Maranaos from their lakeside slumber before daybreak. But the war silenced these Islamic beacons of peace as the nightmare of destruction befell the town area.

Out of at least 56 mosques or masjids — big and small alike — in the 24 villages in the main battle area, 48 were wrecked and would need to be built from scratch, according to the United Imam of the Philippines. Most of the destroyed mosques were the big ones, including the landmark Islamic Center.

Wider roads, a modern business district, riverside parks, and promenades are just some of the improvements expected to rise from the ashes of war in Marawi City. And what the battle destroyed in five bloody months, the government promises to rebuild in 4 years at most.

The reconstruction of the 24 most affected villages inside the 250-hectare land that used to be the main battle area would require an estimated P48 billion (US$927.2 million).

“It was always raining bombs until almost all of the structures there were flattened,”

How locals and the national government view reconstruction work may even lead to a worse problem – radicalism – said researcher Steven Rood, a former University of the Philippines professor from the northern Philippines who has done studies on the Moro conflict both for the Social Weather Stations and the Asia Foundation.

While the government’s plan tries to paint a beautiful and modern picture of a reconstructed Marawi in three more years, the Maranaos have a simpler vision—good ol’ home. As the Maranao saying goes: “Minsanoray bolawan a oran ko isa ka inged na mapangingiroy tadn i tarintik sangganatan.”

Roughly translated in English, it means: “Even if gold rains in other places, I will prefer the raindrops in Lanao.”

This story by Patrick Quintos was originally published on ABS-CBN News on March 13, 2018.

Written by Patrick Quintos, the story was part of a 9-part special report that won the 2018 Association of International Broadcasting (AIB) Awards in the interactive category and an Honourable Mention in Journalistic Innovation at the Society of Publishers in Asia’s (SOPA) 2019 Awards for Editorial Excellence. It recounts the five month siege on Marawi City staged by Islamic State sympathisers in 2017 through the perspectives of the people affected by it. Before this story, readers have never had a view of how widespread the destruction was except for news footage shown on television. The multimedia story was presented on a map with several aerial shots of Marawi, which gave readers a survey of its total annihilation. It was developed for the web by Regie Francisco and published on the ABS-CBN News Digital website, featuring photos from Jonathan Cellona and Fernando Sepe Jr and drone videos from Val Cuenca. With the city holding the families’ stories and their culture’s legacies in shambles, residents of Marawi fear that the situation will unravel into more conflict if the government failed to provide answers about its destruction. This story is both an attempt to acknowledge that fear, and to honour the people who struggled to stay alive as well as the memory of those who perished.

Ghost patients, scammers haunt Philippine health system

As a member of Philippine Health Insurance Corp (PhilHealth), patient Maria (not her real name) was getting free dialysis treatment at a city centre in Quezon, Philippines.

The state insurer’s health insurance coverage entitles each PhilHealth member to 90 free dialysis sessions a year.

But even though Maria died in March 2016, PhilHealth continued to pay for the rest of the dialysis treatments at P2,600 (US$49.60) each.

Dead patients undergoing kidney dialysis, ghost patients getting cancer treatments and fake members are just some of the fraudulent schemes that led to at least P154 billion losses in PhilHealth.

The state-owned corporation manages health insurance of public and private employees and their dependents, as well as indigents or poor beneficiaries.

In June, The Inquirer uncovered massive corruption in the health insurance agency, bleeding billions of pesos from health premiums paid by its 105 million members and beneficiaries.

Former employee of WellMed Dialysis Laboratory Center Corp, Edwin Roberto disclosed how he filed PhilHealth claims using the names of dead patients for non-existent dialysis sessions since March 2016 upon the instruction of one of his employers.

Owners of the clinic prepared the claims and told the centre’s employees to copy the patients’ signatures from their medical records so that these claims could be submitted to PhilHealth, he said. Edwin told reporters that he and fellow ex-employee Liezel Santos went directly to the PhilHealth office in January to follow up on the status of their complaints about WellMed, but the visit was futile.

Philhealth controversy whistle blower Edwin Roberto said in a press conference called by lawyer Harry Roque that he and another former WellMed employee sought assistance and protection from PhilHealth but were rebuffed. Source: INQUIRER PHOTO / GRIG C. MONTEGRANDE

Apart from turning a blind eye to payments for kidney dialysis treatments of dead patients, the list of fraudulent acts that corrupt PhilHealth officials and personnel knew about include cancer treatments for fictitious members, fake payment receipts of overseas workers as well as hospitals overcharging by declaring ailments like cough and common colds as pneumonia.

Overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Marveleca Bautista-Jauod is just another victim embroiled in the schemes of conniving PhilHealth employees and fraudsters. Hours before her flight to Kuwait on Aug 12, 2015, the OFW discovered that the PhilHealth benefit package which was supposed to cover the hospitalisation cost of her 8-year-old son, who had been stricken by dengue, was invalid.

But because her PhilHealth member data record did not reflect any payment made by her hiring agency, her family had to shell out around P12,000 for the hospital fees. Her mother eventually found out that the PhilHealth official receipt(POR) Marveleca received was fake.

“Eli”, a PhilHealth employee who monitored cases of fake PORs until September 2018, had recognised the same scheme in at least 48 hiring agencies handling land-based workers.

However, since the scam was first spotted in 2015, the lack of political will and general “inaction” of top PhilHealth officials hindered its speedy resolution, Eli said. The case files have been passed on to five PhilHealth presidents, illustrating the bureaucratic red tape plaguing PhilHealth’s inquiries into irregularities, he added. Eli cited the case of Dennis Mas, then the regional vice president of PhilHealth’s National Capital Region (NCR) office. Mas was supposedly concerned that picking up the issue of the fake PORs—which by that time was already being reported in six provinces as well—could affect his chances of promotion.

There is a culture of fear. You can’t blame them. Once in a while, there would be motherhood statements denouncing the fraud, but nothing happens. Those who really try to fix it, they get removed, end up being called troublemakers. I really feel sorry for them.

This widespread corruption in the public health system is an injustice especially since most Filipinos can barely afford hospitalisation and medicine. A 2016 study by the state University of the Philippines found that six out of 10 Filipinos die without ever seeing doctors. The country’s doctor-patient ratio is 1:33,000, a far cry from other countries which have an ideal ratio of 1:1,000.

In 2018, the newly-passed Universal Health Care Law which mandates universal health coverage of all 110 million Filipinos set aside a budget of P171 billion.

However, these efforts are nought if PhilHealth does not undergo a major overhaul. Documents obtained by the Inquirer showed that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III was made aware of the loss caused by PhilHealth’s overpayments and other fraudulent schemes in November 2017, a month after he took office.

Minguita Padilla, former head executive staff of former Health Secretary, Janette Garin said:“There is a culture of fear. You can’t blame them. Once in a while, there would be motherhood statements denouncing the fraud, but nothing happens. Those who really try to fix it, they get removed, end up being called troublemakers. I really feel sorry for them.”

After the Inquirer’s series of reports, President Rodrigo Duterte asked for the resignation of a dozen top PhilHealth officials and ordered the arrest of the Wellmed Dialysis Center owner and the others involved in the scam on June 7. He replaced the PhilHealth president with a retired military general to undertake sweeping reforms in the agency.

In his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, the President singled out the Inquirer’s PhilHealth expose as an example of corruption he wanted to weed out.

The Philippines president said: “The recent uncovering of the massive fraud perpetrated against the public health insurance system proves that corruption is pervasive. Huge amounts of medical funds were released to cover padded medical claims and imaginary treatment of ghost patients. I am grossly disappointed.”

On August 14, the Senate blue ribbon committee opened an investigation on the Philhealth scam after several senators filed resolutions calling for an inquiry.

Two months since the Inquirer began the series, the story is still unfolding with more revelations of corruption in PhilHealth.

This story is a compilation of a series of articles by Leila Salaverria, Jovic Yee, Mariejo Ramos, Marlon Ramos and Melvin Gascon originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer from June 6 to June 21.

The Inquirer investigative team first scratched the surface of the massive corruption in PhilHealth upon receiving documents and interviewing two whistleblowers. The former employees of Wellmed Dialysis Center exposed their employer’s scheme of charging kidney dialysis for dead patients. Five reporters from the team spent weeks pouring through voluminous documents, interviewing insiders and taking out-of-town trips to find victims of the scam. The team took more than a month to launch the series of investigative reports. After the first series came out on Jun 6, 2019, more documents and whistleblowers came forward about PhilHealth’s systemic misconduct. The Inquirer ran a total of 24 stories on the issue. The unravelling corruption included an exclusive report on the Secretary of Health’s conflict-of-interest, as his family corporation was found leasing a building for PhilHealth and supplying medicine for the Department of Health.