The link between electricity and education

Teachers and students look on as Meralco engineers install a 1 kW peak solar photovoltaic system on the roof of a classroom. The solar-powered system is capable of providing electricity to the school's elementary and high school buildings. Photo by: One Meralco Foundation

While energy poverty is becoming more prominent as a development issue, there remains a huge gap in addressing the often overlooked but nevertheless serious challenge: the United Nations estimates that around 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, while a billion more only have access to unreliable electricity networks.

In the Philippines, where electricity costs are among the highest in Asia, those who lack access to electricity are in an even more disadvantaged position.

One Meralco Foundation, the social responsibility arm of Meralco, the Philippines’ largest power distributor, has begun to address this problem by setting up solar photovoltaic systems in off-grid households and schools around the country. Last year, it increased its community electrification activities by 130 percent — from 10.8 million to 24.8 million Philippine pesos ($242,000 to $556,000) — and energized 3,079 households in 22 communities within the Meralco franchise area and 24 public schools in remote and island communities.

Jeffrey Tarayao, One Meralco Foundation president and one of Devex’s Manila 40 Under 40, said the school electrification program, which was launched in 2012, came about as an answer to one question: Where is electricity really needed?

For Tarayao, the answer was easy: schools.

In 2011, or a year before the program was launched, the Philippines’ Department of Education estimated that there were more than 7,000 schools with no access to electricity. In a country where public schools are crippled by limited textbooks and cramped classrooms, the lack of electricity may not seem to be the most pressing need. But thinking about electricity this way may be short-sighted.

Tarayao gave the case of Isla Verde in Batangas — the pilot community for the school electrification program — as an example. Before the six public schools were installed with solar panels, school would have to be canceled in rainy weather because the classrooms were not well-lit for teachers and students. On school days, some teachers would even have to go on a rough 45-minute boat ride to get to the city, where they could print their own test papers.

But beyond enabling teachers to continue classes and print test papers right inside the schools, the ultimate goal of energizing a school is to make learning enjoyable for students, according to Tarayao. The results of the Isla Verde project — an initiative that garnered a Philippine Quill Award and an Anvil Award in 2012 — were, in his words, “inspiring.”

“Absenteeism went down, I guess because students got more excited to go to school,” Tarayao told Devex. “When we energize a school, the intention is not just to energize for illumination and ventilation. We wanted them to use computers and laptops, get connected to the Internet. The kind of system we’re putting up should be able to help the teachers get more content so they can deliver better lessons.”

Education, after all, has long been Tarayao’s pet cause. Born to a poor family, he finished basic and secondary education through the help of his father’s employer, who financed his schooling. Graduating from college and getting his first job meant that he had to help his parents pay for the education of his younger brother and sister, who were then still in elementary school. To him, this further drove home the point that education, more than a necessary expense, is an important investment.

Tarayao, who is also president of the nongovernmental organization Coalition for Better Education, brings that philosophy to his current role as One Meralco president.

“You know you’re able to do a lot because you’re given these resources,” he said of his job. “But the role is [deciding] where to bring or invest [these resources] so you can create a positive multiplier effect.”

The high cost of running the school electrification program, after all, may not seem to make sense from a business perspective: It costs between 500,000 and 700,000 pesos to energize one school.

“But these are students left behind in a community. For us, it’s really not donating electrification systems. If I may use it correctly, it’s donating opportunities so [the students] can become productive,” Tarayao said.

Working with the government and electric cooperatives, Tarayao found, hasn’t been difficult. From the start, One Meralco has been able to work with those that can really scale up the program.

Gathering residents in mostly tight-knit rural communities hasn’t been an issue, either. “A school becomes a very credible authority in the community,” Tarayao said. “When the principal or the teacher calls for a meeting, everybody attends.”

Sustainability, however, is one challenge that Tarayao expects to encounter. Unless the batteries are well-maintained, they would have to be replaced after two years. The foundation would have to work with local government units either to help ensure the batteries are maintained properly or fund replacements.

There is also a continued need to make the beneficiaries of the program understand solar electrification. For instance, the beneficiaries need to know how many appliances they can plug into the system without overloading it.

In August, One Meralco will launch an energy education program that could be used in different classes — science, math, english and home economics, for example — in various schools across the Philippines “to help teachers understand better so they can teach students better.”

Right now, the focus is on broadening the program’s reach to more schools with no access to electricity. Last week, One Meralco energized 12 public schools in the municipalities of Rodriguez and Tanay in Rizal.

The effort is part of the goal of giving access to electricity to 35 public schools this year. Tarayao, who wants to go beyond the areas in which One Meralco-energized schools are already present, is currently looking at a school for the T’boli in South Cotabato, Southern Mindanao, as well as schools in Limasawa, Southern Leyte, and in Cagayan province in northern Philippines. Bangsamoro schools could also be part of the 35 schools that will be energized this year.

“We’ve reviewed Homonhon, [Eastern Samar,] but since it was destroyed by Yolanda, we’re trying to help them rebuild the school and eventually energize the school,” Tarayao said.

While Tarayao is open to expanding the program to other developing countries, the Philippines, with thousands of schools still with no electricity, remains the priority. “There’s a real need here where we can make a very significant contribution,” he said.

This article was sponsored by One Meralco Foundation. Find out more about One Meralco Foundation.

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About the author

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    Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a Manila-based development analyst focusing on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.