by Reuben Levermore, Manila
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade
The Philippines may seem like an unlikely place for a collaboration between Iceland and New Zealand. But when it comes to geothermal energy, it is a partnership that makes perfect sense.
Last week, I joined representatives of Icelandic company Orka Energy (www.orkaenergy.com) , and some of its New Zealand partners and personnel to travel to its development site in Biliran province.
Like neighbouring Leyte province, Biliran sits atop an area of significant volcanic activity. But unlike Leyte, it is yet to harness geothermal steam for energy generation.
Biliran is one of the Philippines’ smallest provinces, home to an estimated 160,000 people, who make a living from basic agriculture and fishing, as well as remittances sent to the families of seafarers trained at the academy of the local Naval State University. I was relieved to see on my visit that Biliran had been spared the very worst effects of Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) despite being less than three hours drive from Tacloban City.
According to Orka CEO, Eirikur Bragason, the Biliran geothermal project will create up to 600 jobs during its construction phase, hoped to commence around April this year, and the plant is expected to be in full operation within two years. The project has already helped to develop essential infrastructure in the area, with the local airport now able to receive charter flights.
Tests from the first drilled wells have returned very positive results and Orka’s CEO told the local community in Biliran that he expects the project to be one of the most developed plants in the Philippines, complete with a visitor centre, and with minimal environmental impact.
There has been much debate lately in the Philippines about electricity prices, which are among the highest in Asia. And the Philippines needs to build more energy generation capacity in order to meet growing demands. New Zealand, with its strengths in renewable energy – hydro and geothermal in particular – is well placed to help meet this challenge.
New Zealand’s involvement in the Philippine geothermal energy sector dates back to its beginnings in the 1970s when NZ government funded technical work contributed to the development of the first geothermal sites in the country. Today, the Philippines is the world’s second largest generator of electricity from geothermal steam, and New Zealand companies provide consulting services and technical support to partners in the Philippines. Additionally, scholarships provided by the New Zealand aid programme have included those for post graduate study at Auckland University’s geothermal institute including, in recent times, an official from the Department of Energy’s geothermal energy division. I was pleased to be joined on my visit to Biliran by Mario Marasigan and Ariel Fronda of the Department of Energy’s renewable energy management bureau.
I understand that the Biliran project is on course to be the first geothermal project since the enactment of the Philippines’ Renewable Energy Bill, and others are set to follow. A successful project in Biliran will significantly develop the local economy, make a further contribution to Philippine energy needs, and hopefully pave the way for further New Zealand involvement in the Philippines’ renewable energy development.