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Under Their Feet: A Filipino Village Taps Geothermal Energy

Locals used to cook their food in bubbling pools of steaming groundwater. Now a project is underway to turn it into electricity.

Montelago is on the coast of Mindoro’s Lake Naujan
Montelago is on the coast of Mindoro’s Lake Naujan
Jason Strother

MONTELAGO — This village rests on the coast of Mindoro’s Lake Naujan, whose waters are 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," says community leader Felix Guida. "This is a remote village. We have power lines coming here, but if there's a storm, the power goes out. Blackouts are common."

There's a solution to this problem, one that’s literally right under the villagers' feet.

Along a walking path is a bubbling pool of steaming hot ground water. 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 company Emerging Power are lowering a drill deep into the rock. "This area is magmatic, not volcanic," explains project manager Fidel Correa. "There is lava underneath, at about 30,000 to 40,000 meters."

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 1,000, 1,200 meters," Correa says. "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."

Not a new idea

Since the 1970s, the Philippines has tapped its ample supply of geothermal power. About 17% of the nation’s total energy input currently comes from this renewable resource.

[rebelmouse-image 27088885 alt="""" original_size="1024x768" expand=1]

Island of Mindoro, Philippines — Photo: brownpau

But Emerging Power says the government hasn't maximized geothermal's full potential. The company estimates the Mindoro project, to be privately funded, will cost $185 million to complete. Engineers hope energy production will start within the year, and that could mean a big financial savings for locals.

Right now, villagers in Montelago who own some electrical appliances, such as refrigerators, pay about $30 a month for their unreliable electricity. But once the island is hooked up to a geothermal-powered grid, the monthly cost will be about half that. And that can’t come soon enough for many locals here.

Rosanie Valiente, principal of Montelago’s elementary school, is tired of the power outages. "It's always happening here in our place," she says. "So we use candles. It really affects the learning of our pupils because they cannot study their lessons well when it's dark."

Valiente has high hopes for the project but says it has taken some convincing. She says people here are concerned when outside companies come in and start drilling on their land. And for good reason.

A culture of mistrust

Liezle Atilano, a 45-year-old representative of Mindoro's indigenous Mangyan community on Lake Naujuan’s shore, says that mining companies have devastated villages here in the past.

"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," Atilano says. "Toxins also leaked into the water and poisoned fish."

Lesley Capus, a sociologist hired by Emerging Power to help build trust in the communities around the geothermal project site, says the mistrust 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," Capus says. "So people are basically alarmed or suspicious whenever there is development intervention in the community."

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 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.

“Not many people here in Mindoro understood what the energy company was doing," says Montelago village leader Felix Guida. "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.”

At least, Guida notes, most villagers finally believe that the company is not mining for gold.

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Houseboats on the Nile in Zamalek, Cairo

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