Montelago village rests on the coast of Mindoro’s Lake Naujan. These waters are both the main source of food and livelihood for its 1,900 residents
Montelago is connected to the island’s power grid, but just barely.
“Electricity is a problem here. This is a remote village. We have power lines coming here, but if there is a storm, the power goes out. Blackouts are common here,” explained community leader Felix Guida.
There could be a solution to this problem, one that’s literally right under the villagers’’ feet.
Along that walking path I come across a bubbling pool of steaming hot ground water.
I’m told people here used to cook their food in this, but now a project is underway to turn that same heat into power for Montelago and many other communities.
In the hills above the village, engineers from the firm Emerging Power are lowering a diamond headed drill deep into the rock.
“This area is magmatic, not volcanic. There is lava underneath, at about 30/40-thousand meters,” explained Project manager Fidel Correa.
Nearby, chainsaw wielding men are clearing patches of the forest. Here is where the turbines and other machines will be installed once geothermal energy production begins.
Correa explains that what I’m standing in front of is just a test well.
“We would want to know what the temperatures would be at 1000, 1200 meters level. That would give us an idea of how much power we could get. We were shooting for 40-megawatts to supply the whole of Mindoro Island with electric from geothermal power,” said Correa.
Since the 1970s, the Philippines has tapped its ample supply of geothermal power. Currently about 17-percent of the nation’s total energy input comes from this renewable resource.
But Emerging Power says the government hasn’t maximized geothermal’s full potential.
The company estimates the Mindoro project will cost185 –million dollars to complete, which will be all privately funded.
Engineers hope energy production will start within the year.
And that could mean a big financial savings for locals.
Right now, villagers in Montelago that own some electrical appliances, like refrigerators, pay about 30 US dollars a month for their unreliable electricity.
Emerging Power says once the island is hooked up to a geothermal powered grid, the price will be halved.
And that can’t come soon enough for many locals here.
Rosanie Valiente is principal of Montelago’s elementary school.
“It’s always happening here in our place, our barangay. So we use candles. It really affects the learning of our pupils because they cannot study their lessons well, because it is dark,” said Valiente.
Valiente has high hopes for the geothermal energy project, but says it took some convincing.
She says people here are concerned when outside companies come in and start drilling on their land. And for good reason.
I spoke to 45-year old Liezle Atilano, a representative of Mindoro’s indigenous Mangyan community on Lake Naujuan’s shore. She says in the past, mining companies have devastated villages here.
“Mining caused flooding in one of our tribal communities and I’ve heard that some people were killed because of a landslide near the site. Toxins also leaked into the water and poisoned fish,” said Atilano.
Lesley Capus is a sociologist who was hired by Emerging Power to reach out and build trust in the communities around the geothermal project site.
He says the distrust of outsiders here goes back centuries. After all, he points out, the name Mindoro comes from the Spanish words for gold mines.
“The island province of Mindoro in its context has a strong issue about the mining industry. So people are basically alarmed or suspicious whenever there is development intervention in the community,” said Capus.
Capus and Emerging Power took village leaders, teachers and local officials on tours of geothermal plants in other parts of the Philippines and have held educational seminars back in the villages. The company will also soon hold landslide evacuation drills in the nearby communities.
Capus says they’re doing all they can to show people that they’re trying to help their communities and that they take their safety seriously, but there are still some skeptics here.
“Not many people here in Mindoro understood what the energy company was doing, people were suspicious, they thought they were mining. It was hard at first to make them understand what geothermal energy is. There are still people here against the project. But, we the village leaders, have been successful in convincing most locals that it is safe and will benefit all of Mindoro,” said Montelago village leader Felix Guida.
Guida adds that at least most villagers finally believe that the company is not mining for gold.
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