Solar Generation youth at the Maskara Festival
Solar Generation youth at the Maskara Festival

These kids may have the sun in their eyes. But they definitely aren’t blinded by the light. In fact, they would like nothing more than to shine that light on everyone lest the world be plunged into the darkness, literally. Meet the youth of Solargen. Solar Generation International is a youth movement active in Europe, the United States and Asia in campaigns for a switch from highly polluting fossil fuel energy to clean renewable energy across the globe. Solargen reached the Philippines last year when its first chapter was organized in Negros Occidental in mid-2004.

With around 70 active members from seven Bacolod schools, some as young as 14 or in second year high school, the members of Solargen here acknowledge they have their work cut out for them.

But that has not stopped them from racking up a string of accomplishments as they strive to realize their dream of a province and, eventually, a country totally rid of fossil fuel-based energy.

In fact, they immediately made their mark on the public consciousness during their debut in last year’s Masskara Festival, where they unveiled the project that has come to be their trademark – the Solar Trailer.

A small mobile solar panel array, the Solar Trailer, which offered free cell phone charging, was not just an instant hit with text-obsessed revelers.  More important, says 16-year old Rachel Garcia, “it pricked people’s curiosity.”

In fact, she says, there were actually people who asked how to go about setting up solar or wind systems for their homes and farms.

Unfortunately, says Nicole Marie Padal, also 16, while it is “true that a lot of people are interested” in renewable energy, such systems are “really expensive” and way beyond the means of ordinary folk.

On the other hand, she adds, most those who can afford them, including the families of Nicole’s schoolmates at St. Scholastica’s Academy, “don’t want the extra expenses.”

“Which is why we’re trying to convince them,” Marian Frances Ledesma, 17, a freshman at the

University of St. La Salle, says their tack is pointing out that, while start-up costs are, indeed, steep, “in the long run, it comes out much cheaper.”

They have had some, albeit limited, success. In Nicole’s case, the success is conditional. “I’ve talked to my parents and they’re convinced (renewable energy) will help. But for now, they say we don’t have the money. But my Mom has promised we’ll eventually do it.”

For now, says Rachel, they are concentrating on the “doables” such as getting their classmates and their families to reduce energy use. In her family’s case, “from a monthly bill of around P2,000, we’re now down to about P700. For example, we did away with our electric water pump and hooked up to Baciwa (the Bacolod City Water District).”

Since their Masskara debut, Solargen and its Solar Trailer have been a ubiquitous sight in major events such as last year’s National Youth Day, the Cinco de Noviembre celebrations in Bago City, and most recently, the Pana-ad Festival.

At the Pana-ad, the province’ premier festival, Solargen teamed up with what Nicole describes as their “wakeup call” and their “motivation,” Pulupandan, the small port town that made history when it became the first municipality in the country to successfully oppose the construction of a coal-fired power plant.

“We had a picture exhibit which expresses what our cause is all about, from the culprits to the projects to the solutions,” Rachel says. “We also distributed flyers to people to inform them about climate change and renewable energy.”

Of course, the Solar Trailer was there.  Solargen also conducted a survey that Rachel says “a lot of people” participated in, proof “that they were interested in the climate change issues that we were explaining to them.” They also went around the festival grounds “talking to common folk and distributing our information sheets. There were positive responses to this activity. This event was indeed a great step because we were able to convince people that Negros is a model for renewable energy that many other provinces can follow.”

Solargen has also held exhibits, demonstrations and lectures in different schools and have started a signature campaign for renewable energy.

Aside from these, Albert Lozada says they are pushing schools such as St. Scholastica’s and the USLS “to adopt energy efficiency programs” and also hope to convince residents of major subdivisions to follow suit.

“We have also identified households in the province that are actually using solar generation systems and hope to promote them as proof that it is really doable,” he added.

Eventually, Solargen sees itself engaging the local and national governments to lobby for a more aggressive renewable energy thrust.

In their activities, they have also helped introduce the Green Renewable Independent Power Producer (GRIPP) project, the private sector consortium formed to realize the vision of 100 percent renewable energy for Negros.

The consortium itself was formed in response to the clear desire, as proven by Pulupandan, of Negrenses to be rid of polluting fossil fuel energy and for clean, affordable power.

On February 16, Solargen joined worldwide celebrations to mark the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol.  The Negros celebration, held in Pulupandan, also marked the town's triumph not just against dirty energy but also renewable energy initiatives in the province. From the proposed site of a polluting fossil fuel plant, the town is set to be home to the first wind turbine farm in Negros, a GRIPP project.

During the celebrations, Marian, representing Solargen, urged national government officials to “take the necessary steps in making sure that our country’s beauty is not lost to dirty fossil fuels. Our land is worth more than what any fossil fuel project or investor has to offer.”

“That day marked an important step to making our dream of a renewable future possible,” Rachel says.

She also says they are immensely inspired by the knowledge that they are part of a growing global movement that has racked up impressive accomplishments elsewhere.

In Switzerland, for example, 3,000 youth helped build over 90 solar systems, receiving two awards for their work. And in the US, Solargen youth have been waging the “Clean Energy Now” campaign for some time now.

Rachel herself attended the international Solargen youth camp, held at the same time as the Bonn Renewables 2004 Conference in Germany last year, becoming one of “84 young people, 11 nations, six days and one message: Full speed ahead for Renewable energy!”

“I listened to the personal experiences of my fellow delegates and realized that climate change is no joke,” she says.  “We already know how much extreme weather events have annihilated people and ecosystems all over the world. Droughts, diseases, typhoons and rising of sea levels are just some of the plagues that will destroy our earth.”

“After sharing our stories and ideas, I realized that I could not imagine a good future living in submerged island states, famine, and the deteriorating lives of men, women and children. If this was the future, I refused to live in it.”

“It was time to take action, not tomorrow but today.” Armed with this determination, Rachel and her fellow youth camp participants stood in front of the conference center “with information, ideas, projects, exhibits and songs that express the plight of the future.”

They were also able to talk to energy officials of participating countries, learning of their energy plans and trying to “convince them to commit to switching their subsidies from fossil fuel projects to clean and renewable energy.”

As a highlight, “we set up a huge sun mural where the ministers from different countries could show their commitment to a renewable future by leaving their handprints.”

Many did.

And, Rachel says she “was especially proud when Energy Undersecretary Eduardo Manalac gave a little speech about how the Philippines plan to increase the use of renewable energy by 100% by 2013. The Philippine delegation got a lot of respect after that.”

Of course, spurred in great part by Pulupandan’s success and the ensuing clamor for clean energy, the national and provincial governments have committed themselves to the vision of a 100 percent renewable Negros.

But Rachel and her fellow Solargen members realize it takes more than pledges to make a vision come true.  “We seek binding targets, not just promises on paper but something we can actually see 20 years from now,” she says.

Which is why, to help ensure that these commitments are fulfilled, Solargen aims to organize more young people to create a critical mass of renewable energy advocates. By the end of the year, they hope to increase their membership to at least 300 and with the help of receptive school and education officials hope to tap the public schools in their campaigns.

“We are still new, we know, but we think we are succeeding in everything we do,” says Marian.

“I just keep in mind that this is my future and the future of my children, and I will do my best to secure a clean earth for them,” adds Rachel.