Capturing free energy in a plastic bottle

Innovative light-based technology helps solve energy poverty in the Philippines

The challenge

Electricity in the Philippines is unusually expensive, if it is available at all. Some three million households have no electricity. Living “off the grid” typifies the cruel marginalization of the poorest of the poor, who often live in far-flung, hard-to-reach islands and upland areas. Even in the capital city of Manila, large shanty areas remain without electricity. The homes are built so close together that many have no windows or natural light. So many families often work, do chores and eat in near darkness.

What we’re doing

Project 1

When Iliac Diaz, founder and executive director of the non-profit MyShelter Foundation, learned of a solar bottle bulb powerful enough to light a home, he knew he’d found a way to help people living in energy poverty. The innovative eco-friendly bulb provides free light using a recycled plastic water bottle, water and bleach. Mounted in the thin roof of a modest dwelling, the water in the bottle refracts, or bends, the sun’s rays in all directions, creating as much light as 40 to 60 watt incandescent bulb. The solar lights are easy to make from 1.5 and 2 litre plastic bottles and can last up to five years.

So began a revolution known as the “Liter of Light”. Starting in Manila’s poorest district in 2011, Diaz worked with community leaders, local government and others to gain support for the project. Diaz also implemented a Liter of Light social enterprise business model, whereby bottle bulbs are assembled and installed by locals, who earned a small income for their work. A donation from Roche Philippines provided more than 500 solar bottle bulbs, as well as power drills, ladders and other materials needed for installation. The Liter of Light project soon brightened 28,000 homes and the lives of 70,000 people living in the city.

However, one large limitation is that it only provided illumination during daylight hours. So the solar bulb evolved. The latest version now incorporates a LED light and a small solar panel and battery to generate and store energy during the day. The battery can power the LED light for about 10 hours at night. The improvements were to play an important role in helping residents of remote communities recover from a natural disaster.

Project 2

In November 2013 typhoon Yolanda, one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, devastated parts of the Philippines. Many small, impoverished coastal communities, such as Naborot Island, were among the worst hit. Located in Northern Iloilo, it has 37 barangays and is considered the "Alaska" of the Philippines in terms of abundance of fish. Fishing is the primary livelihood of these communities.

In response, Roche Philippines again supported MyShelter Foundation, in coordination with the “Rebuild Project” which was established to speed restoration efforts throughout the country. The initial objective was to install solar bottle bulbs in homes on Naborot Island and along pathways that would serve as emergency corridors for residents seeking safety on higher ground in the event of another storm surge.  

The project is funded by Roche, while MyShelter Foundation provides technical input, design and guidance. The residents of Naborot contribute in-kind services to install the lights, which provided a level of local ownership and empowerment. And the village council agreed on a service fee scheme to purchase spare parts for maintaining the lights.

Our support for the project follows our general philosophy which centres around working with local organisations on the ground where they can have self-responsibility and together we can make a long-term impact.

The great thing is that the residents installed these lights themselves and they are in charge of maintenance, it’s like the entire island has been electrified for free. And it is in fact free energy.
Illac Diaz III Executive director and founder of MyShelter Foundation.

Installing solar lighting systems on a remote island was altogether different from working in a city. The challenges faced by Diaz included transporting materials, including cement and bars, by boat to Naborot. Also, solar components were not always readily available and costs could be high. So Diaz established a non-profit organisation to manufacture the systems locally and trained students to help with them together.

At 6:03 p.m. on 12 June 2014 the 43 households with 212 residents of Naborot declared their independence from dark nights by officially lighting local pathways. With their homes also illuminated by the wonders of solar light, the islanders gained access to a basic service that many people take for granted.

"Before I slept that night, I looked around the neighbouring islands, and it was all dark. They too would have their freedom from darkness. Soon, there would be Naborot in the other islands of Northern Iloilo. From within the island, and from the outside, Naborot was a beauty to behold that residents said they are like a city," said Danny Del Rosario, ReBuild project lead.

Spreading the light

Roche has committed to support 5000 families. Naborot is the first of 37 island communities in Northern Iloilo that Roche Philippines and MyShelter plan to light up. All were devastated by typhoon Yolanda and are off the grid.

Diaz, meanwhile, is relying on volunteers to spread the Liter of Light movement worldwide. Using the Philippines as a base, he has established branches in India, Indonesia, and Switzerland. The vision is for a million eco-friendly solar bottle lights installed around the world by 2015.

Notes:

On September 17 and 18, 2014, two more barangays were lit up with a total of 122 solar night lights and 10 lamp posts. These were Barangays Nasidman in Ajuy and Batuan in Balasan.

Tags: Sustainability, Environment, Society, Philanthropy