- Laguna Lake in the Philippines is home to a pilot project for a floating solar photovoltaic (FPV) installation that could provide energy to surrounding communities as the country faces pressure to transition away from fossil fuels.
- “Floatovoltaic” installations already exist in other parts of Asia, but none are currently on natural lakes like Laguna; researchers say further research is needed to determine the long-term effects on the environment and local communities.
- In Laguna, local fishing communities hope their voices are heard as the project develops, especially since their livelihoods could be affected by the FPV installations; however, the project could also bring new jobs to the area.
Boats and water hyacinths aren’t the only ones floating in the Philippines’ Laguna Lake. In some areas of Los Baños and Bay, small-scale floating solar photovoltaic (FPV) installations can be seen afloat. With a warm breeze and the setting sun in the background, the FPV beds provide a scenic view. These installations are part of a pilot project for a planned 2,000-hectare (4,900-acre), 1,300-megawatt FPV project in Laguna province with expected operations to begin in 2024.
The project is a first both for the Philippines and globally. Though floating photovoltaic installations are gaining popularity as interest in renewable energy surges, it will be the first large-scale operation on a natural lake. What exactly this will mean for local people dependent on the lake for survival remains to be seen.
When he first heard of the project, says Cornelio Replan Jr., chairman of the local government-sponsored fishers association, he immediately thought of how it would affect their livelihoods as fisherfolks.
“We are not against development, but I hope they do not leave out fisherfolks in their plans because our livelihood depends on it and we are the ones who know the lake,” Replan says, speaking in Filipino. He has been fishing since he was 12 years old.
With falling prices for solar panels and growing concern over the environmental impacts of fossil fuel-based energy, solar photovoltaics are booming globally. But this expansion isn’t always without friction. Large-scale solar energy plants require large amounts of land, which can spark conflicts between solar energy producers and people who wish to use the land for agriculture or for conservation purposes.
“Floatovoltaics” could help resolve this tension through the installation of solar PV systems on water rather than on land. The technology is already gaining traction in Asia, with China, India and South Korea leading the way. However, these existing solar farms have mostly been deployed on artificially created reservoirs, not natural lakes.
Laguna Lake, by contrast, is the Philippines’ largest natural lake, with a catchment area of 90,000 hectares (222,000 acres) and serves as aquaculture and fishing grounds for the surrounding communities. Around 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Metro Manila, the lake hosts 35 shoreline municipalities and serves as a source of food, water, livelihoods and now as an emerging source of energy.
The lake’s position at the heart of the region’s economic activities, where an established demand for power exists, makes it a good area to explore the potential of FPV, says Adelina Santos-Borja, former manager of the resource management and development department of the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA).
The project, however, is starting small. Santos-Borja’s study about how the LLDA is dealing with the uncertainties of a solar FPV installation on Laguna Lake notes that renewable energy developers have proposed installing a solar farm on Laguna Lake since 2016. The LLDA cites the potential benefits of renewable energy generation but determines that the lack of available studies on the impacts of FPV installations on natural lakes makes it difficult to assess the project’s environmental and social impacts.
“A reservoir or a pond would have a different behavior or characteristic [compared with a natural lake]. In fact, no two lakes are alike,” Santos-Borja says. Laguna Lake, she notes, is both very large and very shallow. It also serves as a water supply and a source of livelihood for dozens of communities. “Any development project right there at the lake really has to be seriously considered and assessed,” she says.
Accordingly, the authority decided to test the waters with four small-scale pilot projects, each set for one year between 2018 to 2020: Baras and Cardona in Rizal province and Los Baños and Bay in Laguna province.
“The rationale for allowing pilot projects is to really have firsthand information instead of just speculating,” Santos-Borja says. “We are dealing with a lot of uncertainties here because this is new. And a very good approach is to adopt the precautionary principle. So that’s the reason why we allow small-scale pilot projects, small size with a certain time limit.”
As part of the conditions for the pilot project, water quality assessments have been made independently by the LLDA and the project developers by collecting water samples from inside and outside the areas occupied by the floating solar installations.
According to SunAsia project manager John Raymond Lumawag, who handles the pilot testing in Bay, they are in close coordination with the LLDA and they regularly submit reports to them. Based on available testing data thus far, Lumawag says they have so far found no harmful effects on the lake’s water quality.
However, Santos-Borja’s study notes five sets of water quality data collected during the pilot testing period, but the data are incomplete and the number of observations too small to make a good statistical evaluation.
“You cannot project that the impact from a 200-meter [650-foot] installation will be the same as the impact on a 100-hectare [250-acre] installation because in nature, it’s not linear,” she says. “There are community benefits,” but so far they are on a small scale with the pilot project. “It would be a different story if it’s on a larger-scale project,” she says.
The pilot testing site in the district of San Antonio in Bay has already finished the first phase of its pilot testing, which started in 2019. The second phase of the pilot testing started in 2021 in the same location but with revisions to the design of the pilot testing bed. The developers are testing different angles and orientations for the solar panels to assess the yields and impacts ahead of building a larger system, Lumawag says.
During the pilot phase, each test installation provides the generated energy to the host communities free of charge. “[The electricity] produced from the solar [panels] goes directly to the barangay [district], essentially reducing their monthly electricity bill,” Lumawag says.
In Bay, the electricity is used to power the barangay hall and covered basketball court. Other communities have chosen to illuminate a park, police station, museum and daycare center.
The second phase of the pilot testing is still ongoing and there is yet no fixed date for its end. However, Lumawag says they are looking at ways to continue supporting the community, such as by installing panels on the roof of the barangay hall if the pilot testing stops.
Benefits and disadvantages still uncertain
Renewable energy provides an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional energy sources. According to the Philippines’ Department of Energy, coal-fired power plants continue to dominate, accounting for 58% of the country’s power generation in 2021. But a green power push could turn the country into a regional leader in renewable energy. Solar generation already grew by 10.2% between 2019 and 2020.
“In terms of carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions, it’s less compared to the usual source of power generation like coal,” Santos-Borja says. “That’s why this is cleaner production. And you know, we are in the tropics and the energy from the sun, it’s just there to be harnessed. So, the resources here are environmentally friendly because it’s renewable.”
Other possible advantages are reduced water evaporation and the prevention of harmful algae blooms, Santos-Borja’s study notes. However, drawbacks could include reduced sunlight penetration to the water body, increased water temperature and effects on the rate of photosynthesis and the concentration of dissolved nutrients in the lake.
But it’s hard to know precisely what the effects would be. “Negligible information is available on the environmental impacts of FPVs,” according to a 2022 report on the broad implications of FPVs, published in iScience, an open-access journal by Cell Press. The study notes some potential negative effects that can be extrapolated from other industries. For example, if the installations restrict oxygen and gas exchanges between the water surface and surrounding environment, “it could lead to [an anaerobic] condition, which affects microbial community and water chemistry of the ambient ecosystem.” Other potential problems could include chemical pollution and fuel leaks resulting from the installation and maintenance of the FPVs as well as underwater noise pollution.
The ability to withstand extreme weather is another potential challenge. It is no secret that the Philippines is on the typhoon belt and experiences an average of 20 typhoons annually. Lumawag says his company’s pilot testing bed was able to withstand the many storms it encountered during the past four years.
“[We have] pre-typhoon inspections and checks to make sure that our system is ready for the typhoon. During a typhoon, safety is what matters to us. So we have different guidelines [in place such as] when to shut down the system to avoid any electricity being spilled. So we’ve done that even from the first up to the last typhoon that we encountered. After the typhoon, we are making sure it’s ready to be interconnected again and to produce electricity for the benefit of the LGU,” Lumawag says.
Despite potential environmental impacts, Lumawag says the installation eventually becomes part of the natural environment. It serves as a haven for fish, as algae that grow under the floats serve as their food, he says. Birds can also sometimes be seen on the installation feeding on the fish. Moreover, he argues, the project benefits the surrounding communities not just by generating electricity but also by creating jobs for the local community and for the benefit of the local government.
The iScience study notes that the long-term effects of FPV installations on communities are also still widely unknown, as “negligible or no published research exists in which the social or societal implications of FPVs are being examined.” But Replan recognizes that the project has the potential to benefit fisherfolks, as it can provide an alternative source of income if they will be hired as workers in the floating solar farm. When it’s windy and waves are high, local fishers cannot go out onto the lake in their small boats, making income unstable and dependent on the weather.
Ruben Amatorio Pia, a member of Bantay-Lawa, a volunteer organization of fisherfolk in partnership with FARMC that is tasked with implementing the Municipal Fishery Ordinance against those engaging in illegal fishing practices, has been fishing for approximately 50 years. He says he has no problem with the floating solar farm as long as it does not bring harmful impacts to his communities. He also mentions that if the floating solar panels are installed 200 meters away from the shoreline, fisherfolks would have to go beyond the floating solar installations or just fish within the area near the shoreline, which could affect their catch.
Fisherfolks, according to Replan, hope they will be prioritized in hiring workers for the floating solar farm since they will be affected by the reduced fishing area.
As of writing, Lumawag says SunAsia is still in the process of securing the necessary permits and licenses from different national government offices for the large-scale solar FPV installation in Laguna Lake. He also mentions that fisherfolks are their number-one priority when it comes to people power — to hire them, train them, involve them as much as possible.
Banner image: A 200-square-meter (2,150-square-foot) small-scale floating solar photovoltaic pilot project in Los Baños, Laguna, which benefits the town’s police station and museum. Image by Jewel S. Cabrera/Mongabay.
Santos-Borja, A. C. (2021). Dealing with uncertainties: Floating solar farm in natural lakes. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science, 789(1), 012036. https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/789/1/012036
Pouran, H. M., Padilha Campos Lopes, M., Nogueira, T., Alves Castelo Branco, D., & Sheng, Y. (2022). Environmental and technical impacts of floating photovoltaic plants as an emerging clean energy technology. iScience, 25(11), 105253. doi:10.1016/j.isci.2022.105253