Philippine group aims to build S-E Asia's biggest solar farm

The Ivy League-educated son of a prominent Philippine congressman wants to build the largest solar power plant in South-east Asia using proceeds from an initial public offering (IPO) next month.

Mr Leandro Leviste, 28, will seek to raise as much as 2.7 billion pesos (S$73 million) by selling shares in Solar Philippines Nueva Ecija, a unit of his Solar Philippines Power Project Holdings.

The funds will go towards constructing the first phase of a 500MW plant in a province about 130km north of Manila. That would raise the country's solar capacity by almost 50 per cent and can power about 800,000 homes when completed.

The offering comes as the Philippines haltingly moves away from fossil fuels. "Solar is no longer a marginal piece of the energy mix but will comprise a majority of new capacity," Mr Leviste said in an interview.

The offering period for the unit will be Dec 1 to 7, with trading beginning on Dec 17 on the Philippine Stock Exchange.

Mr Leviste's mother is Ms Loren Legarda, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and a former candidate for vice-president. His father was the governor of Batangas province outside Manila.

Mr Leviste founded Solar Philippines in 2013 after selling shares in Tesla Motors and SolarCity bought while attending Yale University in the United States. He was convinced solar power could lower electricity prices for the islands, but progress has been slow.

The archipelago ranked 42nd of 114 nations in solar capacity at the end of last year, according to BloombergNEF (BNEF) data. Its challenges include a shortage of land and transmission capabilities, compounded by delays in implementing renewable energy policies, said Ms Caroline Chua, a BNEF analyst.

The country aspires to get at least 35 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, compared with about 24 per cent last year, but it is unclear how binding that target is, she said.

Coal power doubled to 54 per cent of the mix last year from 27 per cent in 2009, according to BNEF. "They have been slipping further and further away from the target because of how much coal they've built in the last decade," Ms Chua said. "If they're serious about meeting it, they do need to build a lot of renewables."

Last year, the government declared a moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants. At the recent COP26 climate summit, it partially backed a pledge to shift away from coal and joined an Asian Development Bank-backed plan to shut some plants early.

Meanwhile, its huge Malampaya gas field could stop pumping as soon as 2026, requiring utilities to import expensive cargoes of liquefied natural gas. Solar Philippines' strategy is to partner large power companies and rent out land for others to build solar farms on.

The company has cobbled together options on about 10,000ha that could hold about 10 gigawatts of solar capacity, Mr Leviste said.

That could mean trying to work with erstwhile rivals.

Philippine power giants AC Energy and Manila Electric have made recent moves into solar.

"The Philippines is an exciting place for the renewable transition because of the high price of conventional generation sources," Mr Leviste said.

"Solar can go mainstream here faster than in countries with lower power prices."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2021, with the headline Philippine group aims to build S-E Asia's biggest solar farm. Subscribe