THIS is probably the first summer, when my aircons are in full blast most of the day, that I don’t dread the coming of my Meralco bill. You see, I “went solar” a few months ago. I had installed solar panels on my rooftop, and I’m finding it such a delight to see my bill fall steeply.
It is partly my petty way of denying Meralco’s Indonesian owner some profits and partly because my Ateneo classmate, a super salesman, kept bugging me.
Seriously though, the decision was out of sheer rationality. We live in a country that has one of the longest days of sunlight hours per day in the world, about four to five, and we’re near the equator, which brings a huge solar harvest compared to other countries. We would be really stupid not to use that valuable resource when technology has given us the affordable tools to do so.
And to think that in Athens, Greece, where I was ambassador, because it is just two-thirds less sunnier than us, most homes had solar panels for water heating, their cost subsidized by the government. That was 13 years ago.
And of course, there’s some sense of accomplishment in the thought I’ve reduced even by a millionth of a percent our country’s dependence on petrol and contributed to its energy sustainability. If only our middle class would go solar – investing in the system rather than having their funds in bank accounts that now yield less than 1 percent – we’ll be cutting down drastically the country’s mostly imported hydrocarbon consumption.
Breakeven period for residential solar-power systems now is three to five years. That means that by year four or six, I’ll have free electricity. Of course, totally no brownouts in the daytime if there’s enough solar power.
Thanks to the Renewable Energy Act of 2008, which former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed, power generated by the solar-cell system that I don’t use is sold to Meralco through a clever technology called net metering. That is, my bill is reduced by the power I “sold” to Meralco.
The big attraction for migrating into a photovoltaic (the technical term for solar cells) power system has been the huge decrease in the cost of solar panels, with the system’s prices falling 20 percent since last year.
Last year, the company that sold me the system (Costbusters, 0917 899 8663) was selling it for P65,000 per kilowatt capacity. I finally decided to go solar when it told me late last year that it was selling it at P52,000 per kW.
The title of a recent article in the British newspaper The Guardian says it all: “‘Insanely cheap energy’: how solar power continues to shock the world.” It’s drophead summarizes what happened in just the past 15 years: “Australian smarts and Chinese industrial might made solar power the cheapest power humanity has seen – and no one saw it coming.”
Although invented way back in the 1940s by a Bell Labs researcher Russel Shoemaker Ohl, the solar cell was technologically developed to be commercially viable by an Australian engineering professor, Martin Green. What gave the solar cell a rocket boost though was when the Chinese province of Jiangsu offered him and his Chinese PhD student Zhengrong Shi to build their own PV factory, called SunTech, in its Wuxi city.
Ironically, US financial capital gave the enterprise operating in a socialist country a big boost when it raised $420 million through the New York stock market in 2005 to expand its facilities. Producing solar cells generating only 60 megawatts in 2005, by 2009, it was producing 1,000 MW gigawatt.
As often happens in China’s nearly freewheeling capitalism, helped by its huge market and the phenomenal economic development of China, other Chinese and foreign firms aped SunTech, that by 2012 the world market was flooded with solar panels, sending the price plummeting through the floor. (Tragically, the intense competition drove SunTech to bankruptcy.)
I am certainly profiting from the fall in solar cells’ prices. Beware though, because so many Chinese firms have been pushing it here, there have been so many well-meaning Filipino entrepreneurs offering such solar systems, who however lack the engineering skills or worse, provide you with below-standard but cheap solar panels, usually unbranded ones. But I’m not asking you to avoid them, only be sure that you have some hold on them, like withholding the last 10 percent of the payment until you’re sure it’s running smoothly.
How much does it cost? The cheapest system, my provider says, is that for a home with one aircon, a laptop, a refrigerator, the usual lights, and having a monthly Meralco bill of P3,000 to P5,000 – the price is P156,000 if it is in Metro Manila. Personally, I think the power from that is too little: prepare for a P300,000 budget.
Note though that the price could steeply go up if you need more power, or would prefer the hybrid system with lithium batteries. These are intended to provide you with power during a brownout in the evening, or on days when the sun is blocked by clouds, as in a typhoon. As in hybrid cars, these batteries are charged when the system has enough power, which supplies you the electricity in the evening, thereby reducing further your Meralco bill.
Like electric cars, the big advantage of a solar system is that since it has practically no moving system, its usable lifetime is quite long, 25 years believe it or not for the solar panels, eight to 10 years for the lithium batteries, and 10 years for the inverter which converts the solar cells’ direct current to the alternate current you use in the house.
I think the solar energy business here has been so unreported, probably since the few big players prefer it that way so they could corner the business. They should even have a lobby group for the government to provide tax incentives to companies and residences moving to solar power.
Take that, Meralco.