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.

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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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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