When God said, "Let there be light," He created the sun from out of total darkness, and from its rays we continue to draw energy that we now use to light up our homes and our offices, and even power up our cellphones and our cars. The Philippine Catholic Church supports the wider use of renewable energy, including solar power, as it gives Filipinos, especially those living in poverty in far-flung municipalities, the means to improve their lives. Caritas Philippines
, the social action arm of the Catholic bishops, is now exerting greater effort to promote the use of solar power to light up poor communities in off-grid areas. It has partnered with a local solar power provider to accelerate the country's transition to renewable energy. Of the 85 dioceses in the Philippines, 43 are already in the process of installing solar panel systems as alternative power sources. On July 31, Caritas Philippines inaugurated three pilot project sites in Sorsogon Diocese
in the Bicol region, some 500 kilometers southwest of Manila, to demonstrate its commitment to accelerating renewable energy use.
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Earlier, in March, Philippine bishops entered into a partnership with WeGen Distributed Energy Philippines
to install solar power services in churches, religious facilities, schools and off-grid communities. For an archipelagic country like the Philippines that grapples with what has been described as "energy poverty," the involvement of the church in renewable energy is a welcome development in empowering poor communities in more ways than one. The bishops' efforts may soon be complemented on a wider scale if a bill now up for deliberation in Congress is enacted into law. House Bill No. 8179 seeks to grant a private firm, Solar Para Sa Bayan Corp., a nationwide franchise to establish and operate distributable power technologies and mini-grid systems throughout the Philippines to improve access to sustainable energy. The measure is timely as a survey conducted by Pulse Asia in June showed that 82 percent of Filipinos favor having new options for electric service providers. The survey said 60 percent of Filipinos are dissatisfied with electricity prices, and 89 percent favor wider use of renewable energy. Support for new electric service providers is consistent across all ages, classes, and geographic areas. Electricity rates in the Philippines are the highest in Asia due to lack of competition. Hence, the entry of new players will force the power industry to become more competitive and lower the rates they currently charge consumers. Filipinos suffer blackouts from traditional utilities and electric cooperatives with poorly maintained facilities and outdated technology, and are vulnerable to natural disasters and supply shortages of imported coal. During the deliberations on the measure, a Department of Energy official said the private sector is encouraged to invest in rural electrification. The bill is opposed, however, by some who claim that there is no legal necessity to grant the company a nationwide franchise since there is an existing regulatory framework allowing any entity, private or public, to participate in the provision of electricity in areas without electricity. But supporters of the bill contend that the solar energy system provider will get zero subsidy from government, unlike traditional utilities that receive subsidies reaching as much as P30 billion (US$556.4 million) combined plus incentives. What the bill eventually wants to do is to lower electricity costs by allowing the firm to compete with existing power monopolies. With competition, industry players making excessive profits will be forced to lower their rates and thus benefit Filipino consumers. So far, over 100 lawmakers have expressed support for HB 8179. More than 20 municipalities have also signed resolutions calling for the passage of the bill. What it would achieve, once enacted into law, is to bring cheap, clean and reliable electricity especially to the rural areas via solar power and improve the lives of millions of Filipinos now groping in darkness and unable to lift themselves up from debilitating poverty. Ernesto M. Hilario is a freelance writer-editor and has written articles for various publications since 1978.