Inside the Maasin Cathedral, the seat of the Maasin diocese in the Leyte province. (Photo from the Maasin Diocese's Facebook page)

A Catholic diocese in the Philippines pioneers shift to renewables

The turn to solar power is not without hurdles, but this parish has not lost time and it's already benefiting from cleaner and cheaper energy.
The turn to solar power is not without hurdles, but this parish has not lost time and it's already benefiting from cleaner and cheaper energy.

Months ago, a diocese in the Philippines made national headlines when the Vatican cited its efforts as one of the best practices in harnessing the sun to power all of its parishes. Inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’- which highlighted environmental justice- the Maasin Diocese was recognized as first in the world to equip its churches with solar panels.

In a country that still largely depends on coal for its energy needs, relying on renewables seems to be more of the exception than the norm. In spite of the looming climate emergency and a global decline in coal-fired power plants (CFPPs), these power stations have been flourishing in Philippine provinces as of recent. For Maasin Diocese’s Vicar General Monsignor, Oscar Cadayona, the shift to solar was their way of taking care of the environment for future generations. 

“By installing solar panels in our 42 parish churches, [we] will try to avoid 191 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years through the generation of solar power,” he said.

The choice to shift to a cleaner energy option made sense from both an economic and an environmental point of view, said Dr Joey Ocon, the chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“Investing in solar panels generates an economic return. It also avoids the consumption of electricity which is based on fossil fuels. If we avoid using electricity from greenhouse gas-emitting sources, we are helping in delaying or preventing climate change,” the renewables expert explained. Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas emitted by burning coal and other fossil fuels and is the root cause of global warming.

The top view of the Maasin Cathedral, which has 18 solar panels on its roof. Photo: Msgr. Oscar Cadayona

The ground-breaking project in Maasin, a collaboration between the diocese and local energy tech firm WeGen Philippines, began in 2017 before it was recognized by the Vatican three years later. The initiative experienced some hurdles along the way. Installing the system was no easy feat as it took a while for WeGen Philippines’ hired workers to reach the various parishes explained the energy tech firm’s Director of Laudato Si’ Relations, Jun Cruz.  “The province was so vast that we had to travel hours to reach one parish to another. We even had to cross the sea to reach the island of Limasawa,” he shared.

When asked about the primary challenge of depending on solar, Cadayona, who presided mass at the Maasin City Cathedral, admitted that the panels could not store energy on days when the skies were covered with thick clouds. He also noted that the diocese still has yet to “feel the huge impact of renewables” even as monthly bills from the local electric cooperative have been reduced. After shifting to solar, the Maasin Cathedral and its diocesan school have saved over 100,000 Philippine pesos ($2,058) every month in its electricity bills.

Meanwhile, the project has sparked hope among parishioners according to Maasin Bishop, Precioso Cantillas, who has been actively pushing for the initiative. “After informing them of the reasons for adopting solar power in the parishes, the faithful were very excited about the project. They are also waiting for the phase of the project when their homes could be powered by renewable energy,” he said.

In the Philippines, religious officials, and the Catholic Church’s humanitarian, development and advocacy arm have been continuously campaigning for clean energy and bringing to light the harmful effects of coal to the environment and to public health.