Shedding Light on a New Idea

Saturday, 26 February 2011

I enjoy weeks like the one I just had, because I learn about some things that seem a little more encouraging and worth the intellectual effort than gross malfeasance (and its bastard cousin, shameless grandstanding) of public officials, looming foreign policy disasters, local villages styling themselves as the Bizarro World version of the Berkeley City Council, or mandatory commemorations of questionable “revolutions”. Those sorts of things are manifestations of the depressing inertia of this country; they are not entirely unimportant, but since follow-up and results are updates the national software apparently hasn’t had yet, not nearly as important as they may seem at first. Working in that sort of atmosphere can be a little dreary, but on the upside, when something promising appears on the radar, it really stands out.
One of those “promising things” I discovered this week is the Isang Litrong Liwanag (literally, “one liter light”) project, which has developed a brilliantly simple idea: using a discarded plastic soda bottle and a small piece of GI sheet, a lamp can be quickly fashioned and installed as a sort of skylight, providing (at least during daytime hours) the equivalent lighting of a 15- or 18-watt fluorescent bulb. As the video on the website shows, this little contraption is obviously well-suited for squatter housing, which about a third of the population of Metro Manila calls home, and whose residents probably suffer the most from the world’s highest power rates.

The project’s website – which I understand is only a few days old – does not give details as to the economic benefits of the soda-bottle light, so I had to make a few guesses. But even being as conservative as I could, there is no way to describe the cost-savings as anything other than impressive. A single light assembled and installed as shown in the video would cost, at most, about 10 pesos, and I assume that most of the materials are actually donated. Assuming that the light is the equivalent of a 15-watt CFL bulb, the monthly savings per light is about 60 pesos. If the project reaches its goal of one million lights installed by 2012, the power savings to the country would be close to 65 million kilowatt-hours per year, or put another way, about the amount of power produced by a 177-megawatt generating plant.

Granted, the benefits of the soda-bottle light have limits. Obviously, they only work during the day, and obviously they would be less impressive during the rainy season. They address only a specific electrical application, and for that matter, only very specific components – clear plastic soda bottles and recyclable sheet metal – of the country’s chronic solid waste problem. They are not particularly stylish, although arguably no more unattractive than a naked fluorescent bulb, and there are some obvious places where they wouldn’t work, such as the lower floors of multi-story buildings.

On the other hand, they’re long-lasting (plastic does gradually degrade in direct sunlight), cheap and easy to replace, and eliminate potentially-hazardous electrical wiring. Perhaps the biggest benefit the Isang Litrong Liwanag might have, however, is in inspiring ideas. Environmental solutions work best at the small level this project is geared towards. It is the residential level – and in this country, particularly the widespread ‘informal’ residential areas – that is the biggest contributor to general pollution and environmental damage, because it is the most comprehensive; the day-to-day lives of people produce solid waste, water pollution, and air pollution (by virtue of placing a load on power plants at a minimum) all at the same time. Anything that can ameliorate that continuous impact on the environment deserves some support.

What I would like to see happen is for the electric utility establishment in this country lend their backing to the project; I get a Meralco bill every month with tips on how to save electricity – let’s see if they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. Not only is the project good CSR, it would help – at least to a small degree – relieve power supply problems, and could help reduce illegal connections. Frankly, I’m convinced Meralco’s top management wouldn’t know CSR if it walked up and bit them in the ass – after all, this is the company that boasts of record profits while owing NAPOCOR something like Php 26 billion – but it’s an idea. In the meantime, I salute the Isang Litrong Liwanag project and anyone who does support them – damn clever, I say.