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Aquino unveils ‘world’s largest solar powered mall’

The Philippines’s biggest retail conglomerate SM Prime Holdings has launched the country's largest commercial rooftop solar power facility atop a shopping mall, amidst looming energy shortage in the country.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III on Monday inaugurated the largest commercial rooftop solar installation ever built in the country, hailing it as a significant milestone for the country as it faces a looming energy shortage.

SM Prime Holdings, owner of nearly 50 shopping malls in the Philippines and five in China, unveiled the 1.5-megawatt (MW) solar farm installed on the rooftop of the SM North Edsa mall in Quezon City, north of Metro Manila.

Solar Philippines, which built the plant, said it was the ‘world’s largest solar powered mall’, fitted with 5,760 solar panels and 60 inverters and covering nearly 12,000 square metres on the top of the mall’s multi-level parking lot.

SM Prime said the solar plant will supply five per cent of the mall’s average daily electricity consumption and will reduce energy costs amounting to Ph 2 million every month.

In a speech at the project launch, President Aquino commended the initiative as significant for the country’s energy sector, which he said, is currently challenged by a looming energy shortage. He noted that current energy projections show Luzon, the country’s biggest island, might experience a shortage of a minimum of around 300 MW to a maximum of 1,000 MW next year.

Solar has gained the reputation of being expensive, not because of the technology, but because previous efforts were too small to benefit from economies of scale

Leandro Leviste, president, Solar Philippines

“This is not a challenge the national government can overcome alone, which is why we are all working with all sectors to address this issue. For example, through the Interruptible Load Program (ILP), the SM group will deload 57.9 MW during critical times when supply falls short of demand. This might not be enough to address that shortage, but it is indeed a very significant step forward, and will hopefully spur other businesses to follow suit,” said Aquino.

The ILP is a voluntary grid disconnection programme, which offers incentives to heavy users of electricity to ease the demand from the country’s power grid and avert power crisis in the country’s summer months. The government said that the power shortage is due to reduced capacity of hydropower plants as well as the spike in electricity usage during the summer.

In addition to the ILP, Aquino has also asked lawmakers last September to grant him the authority to contract additional power generating capacity, which could only be possible through an emergency power law that will suspend other existing laws affecting the country’s energy production.

Under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira), the law grants the president an emergency power if it has been determined that there is “an imminent shortage of the supply of electricity.”

Aquino, however, stressed that renewable energy remains important. “Indeed: whether initiated by government or by businesses like SM and Solar Philippines, these kinds of projects drive home the point that renewable energy can be a competitive choice for power.”

“Solar has gained the reputation of being expensive, not because of the technology, but because previous efforts were too small to benefit from economies of scale. By building the country’s largest projects, we’ve become the first local company to make solar cost-competitive with fossil fuel,” said Solar Philippines’s president and founder, 21-year old Leandro Leviste, who is still an undergraduate at Yale University in the United States.

His firm has been engaged by SM Prime to set up rooftop panels at various malls elsewhere in the country. In September, Solar Philippines has also launched another solar rooftop project made up of 2,514 solar panels for separate mall owner in the south of Metro Manila, the Central Mall Biñan.

Meanwhile, the SM group has already built a 1.1-MW rooftop solar power project in its Xiamen mall last year. It plans to set up more rooftop solar in two of its malls south of Manila.

The 42-hectare Mall of Asia, touted as one of the largest shopping malls in the world, will have 10,500 solar panels to generate 2.7 MW possibly by end of 2015, SM Supermalls president Annie Garcia told the media on Monday.

“The use of renewable energy sources represents a long-term investment. It plays to our country’s strengths, provides insulation from fluctuations in the international oil market and thus allows us to be more self-sufficient, generates savings in terms of electricity costs, and also contributes to the preservation of the environment and mitigates the effects of climate change,” emphasised Aquino.

Civil society groups, however, have criticised Aquino’s support for renewables contradicting. The Power for People campaign network has issued a statement on Monday, contesting that Aquino’s claim of a looming energy shortage during the summer is not substantiated by facts earlier presented by the energy department.

Environmental groups also expressed their worries that an emergency power granted to Aquino will only further increase the operations of fossil fuel power plants, and thereby increase pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.

The resolution filed by the legislators, who support Aquino, stated: “All national government agencies and local government units are hereby authorised to suspend the operability of pertinent laws, rules, and regulations including, but not limited to mitigating measures adopted for the Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM), the Biofuels Act, the Clean Air Act, the Philippine Grid Code, the Philippine Distribution Code, that may affect the operation and transmission of the contracted generation capacities under this Joint Resolution, to ensure the timely commissioning and utilisation thereof.”

Gerry Arances, National Coordinator for the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice and a member of the campaign network pointed out the suspension of environment laws such as the Clean Air Act (CAA) is “an insult to the people” and granting Aquino with emergency power will only hasten for more carbon dioxide-emitting coal power plants. 

“The possible suspension of the CAA under the emergency power scheme might pave the way for the hasty approval of more waste-to-energy incinerators, which will block real progress to the climate-friendly Zero Waste approach that conserves resources, creates green jobs, and cures garbage woes,” added Rene Pineda, Steering Committee member of EcoWaste Coalition and President of Partnership for Clean Air.

The group has planned today, November 28, to be a national day of protest to resist the grant of emergency power to president Aquino.

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