By Guest Author 13/03/2017

By George Jones

I have not been seen around Wellington for a while, so I think it is about time that I tell you what I am doing now.

I have for many years been worried about the world and its problems, and in 2011 with the help of colleagues I delivered a copy of a book “World on the Edge” to nearly two hundred people, decision makers in politics, business and science in New Zealand.

Months later I asked the three local general election candidates whether they had read the book I had delivered, and the Labour and National candidates told me that they had not read it.  Nobody was taking the lead to fix even some of the problems.

So I decided that I must do something myself.  My background of a long life as a technologist could be of assistance in helping stop the world’s use of fossil fuels, and so I studied the subject of renewable energy.

I learned that solar panels would soon be the least expensive of all energy production, reducing in price faster that the reduction of wind electrical generation.  Electric vehicles and electricity storage would be part of the mix.

Nothing was happening in New Zealand so I looked for a more advanced country.  As the problems are world-wide it did not matter where I was.  I found that the Philippines government had enacted a Renewable Energy Act in 2008, with some incentives to kick-start it.

So I found myself in the back-blocks, the boondocks (bundok is Filipino for mountain), of the southern island of Mandanao, in a small village (large by NZ standards) in the hilly, forested centre of the island.  Poverty was everywhere, though there were people and groups who were assisting.  Small assistance from government, but with endemic government corruption I was told it was not very effective.  I visited and saw first-hand the lack of political assistance when I was in Tacloban five days after the super-typhoon Haiyan.

I later learned that my hosts were protecting me from a couple of civil wars here.  As a Caucasian, I would be mistaken for an American, therefore rich, therefore a target for abduction and ransom and maybe beheading from one of the criminal gangs. The other used extortion, murder and arson as their modus operandi.  The travel advisory from every country is never to visit Mandanao, let alone live there.

Technical challenges – roofs in the village

Illuminating work

However I knew I could help, so I now have a company, Lightbeam Inc, official recognition from the Department of Energy as a developer of a solar installation, and am in the process of having importer status with Customs.  It is very administratively difficult to set up and run a business here, but possible.

The idea of roof panels on houses was quickly ruled out because most houses are poorly constructed shacks with suspect strength and rusty roofing iron, with trees planted to give as much shade as possible.  Also my personal safety was likely to be compromised if I had a high profile in the village.  I have not enough money to ever consider utility sized installations.  But community sized was within my thinking.

I now have access to a three hectare property on the edge of the village that mostly slopes gently down to the south, so is ideal for the slope I will need for the panels. Most solar farms have the panels close to the ground, with attendant safety and security problems.  I envisage multiple uses of the land if the panels are overhead.

The land has around 1500 rubber trees that are past their economic life at 38 years old.  Para rubber wood is a tropical hardwood of very low local value, mainly used for pallets, banana boxes, the inside layers of plywood and for firewood.  It is very similar to pinus radiata, used for nearly all construction timber in New Zealand.  Insect damage is a problem, so borate protection is necessary, which means that the wood must always remain dry.

So the design of a table structure is necessary, with legs well back from the edges.  A best fit is around 25 x 24 m, with 300 panels each of 300 W peak under full sunlight.  The table top is sloping such that there is a 10 degree slope to the south.  If the panels are close together with the adjacent edges sealed then that keeps the wood below dry.  The panels become the roof.  There is room for about 35 of these array tables on the site.

Para rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) on the 3 hectare site

The first array

The design is beyond my abilities so an engineer friend and colleague is stepping up with knowledge of earthquakes, wind, wood strength, fasteners, truss and foundation design, that complies with the local building regulations.  When that is approved, and I get the electrical permit, I can start work on building the first array, followed by many more.

On my very limited income of New Zealand Superannuation, I have so far saved enough to buy a diesel engined horizontal band saw from China.  With that I can mill the timber to build a shed, a borate bath, trusses and legs.  Part of the incentive package I have is access to special loans for renewable energy development, so I will borrow what I need to finance the big cost later, the panels and the electronics to provide three phase mains.

The deal is that I sell to the local electricity distributor at a price that is the blended cost of the electricity that they buy that is not renewable electricity, updated monthly.  It is a bit more than 40 % of the retail.  The arithmetic shows that I will be able to pay the borrowed money back in about five years if all the income is used to pay the debt.  To do this I am putting my time in for free, and the land owner will not receive any rental till later.

Most of the income for the following 45 or so years will be distributed locally to help the poor.  I am modelling this on a group where I used to live in Wainuiomata who called themselves ‘The Helping Hand’ who ran quick-fire raffles in the pub and donated to all the do-good local groups, who did not therefore need to have cake stalls etc.

An example of the level of poverty is that there are 80 children in the boondocks who receive free education at one school every weekend, tuition paid for by the Department of Education.  But about half cannot afford the 200 peso (NZ$6) per weekend for the four motorcycle trips to get to the village.  About 50 percent of homes in this area have no electricity supply, even though it is nearly free if they use less than 20 kWh per month.

Electricity is very expensive retail, more than New Zealand, and only the rich can afford it as the wages structure is way less than in most countries.  The installed generating capacity is about twice that of New Zealand, and the population is about 100 million. They do have some good geothermal generation, originally learned from New Zealand, and are second only to USA in production.  Also some hydro, natural gas, diesel and a lot of coal.

Decent incentives

Wind is low, and only economic in the NE of the country.  Solar is there, in large utility sized farms, with a main player started by a teenager more than three years ago, now with hundreds of staff.  They have one array I have visited, above a 1.2 hectare carpark for a major mall, producing 1.5 MW peak. They have produced farms of several hundred MW peak and are now manufacturing solar panels from cells.  One of the incentive packages was for a twenty year contract at a single price calculated to give the generator over 16 % return on investment.  The price was considerably higher than what I will be getting, subsidised by an extra charge on all buyers of electricity in the country.  As solar produced electricity has now reached parity with the lowest cost carbon-based generation this incentive has now been discontinued.

My incentive package provides zero company tax for seven years, with one third taxes for the following seven.  Zero customs tariffs for anything imported, and zero VAT (GST equivalent) for anything bought locally or imported.  Higher depreciation and access to special loans.

When or if I complete the 35 arrays, taking several years, the income I will be able to distribute from the over 4 GWh/yr will be substantial, which will go a very long way locally.  But starting only after the first five years or more, after the loans are paid back.  Of course over fifty years anything can happen, so the income will change in the future.

After I buy a slow electric car I will also add e-vehicle battery charging, but only during daylight hours.

So I am doing my bit to help both the world and the local community.  What I wish to do is to provide a demonstration for others to copy.  It will be my gift to the world before I exit.

George Jones is a Companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand, retired scientist and adventurer. He lives in a small village in the southern island of Mindanao, in the Philippines, where he is building a solar array to supply renewable energy.