Powering up after Super Typhoon Rai/Odette
Updated: Apr 1
When an enormous storm has knocked out power and your phone is out of juice, how do you reestablish communication? How do you power your lights to see at night?
Those were some of the problems faced by thousands on remote Philippine islands after Super Typhoon Rai/Odette made landfall in December. Unlike mainland residents, they couldn't just wait for the power to be turned back on - there is no central power source. But Field Ready had a quick solution: locally made portable solar charging kits.
Thanks to the quick thinking of our team there and two partner organizations, we helped about 5,000 people in some 950 households reach out on their phones and turn on some lights after they'd been cut off from power for days.
We partnered with Fablab UP Cebu and Light of Hope to design and produce the units locally. Fablab UP Cebu is the first fabrication laboratory in Cebu, providing public access to digital fabrication tools to anyone who wants to make almost anything. Light of Hope is a local organization working to provide sustainable energy sources to households.
Funded by The Chicago Community Trust, we put together 25 solar charging units with local materials and then distributed them in three island barangays (small islets), and in an evacuation center in Cebu City. Each charging kit can charge up to 50 cellular devices a day, and can also be used to light common areas at night.
The chargers were a quick and reliable solution for many who lost power when Super Typhoon Rai (called Typhoon Odette in the Philippines) slammed into the eastern Philippine islands Dec. 16. The storm made first landfall on Siargao island and continued west through Bohol and Cebu. Much of the area lost power, local and regional air travel was disrupted, sea traffic halted and many businesses closed.
While mainland Bohol and Cebu province were largely recovering by February, the smaller barangays around them were still struggling. Too far from the mainland to draw from those power sources, and often surrounded by shallow reefs reachable only by smaller boats, barangays are the smallest administrative division in the Philippines under a city or municipality and must be largely self-reliant for utility services.
Even before the storms, sustainable electricity was a challenge on the barangays - while some residents rely on individually owned generators and large solar systems for electricity, many can't afford their own power setup. Those people bring their radios, flashlights, fans, power banks and cell phones to their powered-up neighbors to charge for a fee.
But Typhoon Rai made the situation worse: the 81 island barangays in Bohol were severely damaged - including existing generators and solar setups. In Cebu, eight island groups were also damaged. In total, some 212,000 were left without power.
But we have some experience in reconnecting people after disasters. For this program, we focused our power-aid efforts initially on Jagoliao Island and Sag Island in Bohol, and Pangan-an Island in Cebu.
Building the chargers
In keeping with our "make it local" aim, we purchased all the materials used for the charging units within the country’s available stocks and resources. This eliminated the wait as a result of ordering parts overseas.
We and our partners decided to focus on safety and longevity, community use and portability when designing the solar charging units.
First up was safety and longevity. It was important to be able to charge cell phones and other devices but use fewer internal wires; more wires increases the possibility of shorting out and starting a fire. So we decided to use USB ports, instead of the Type A outlet generally used in the Philippines. This limited the potential risk of individuals plugging extension wires in to allow the use of larger appliances.
We also removed inverters from the design to keep it compact, and allow space for more batteries to expand its capacity. We decided on a lithium iron phosphate battery (LiFePo 4) which needs little maintenance and lasts four to five years; in comparison, lead-acid batteries last just two to three years.
Then we decided that the most people would benefit if the chargers were offered in community areas. We initially planned to set them up in evacuation centers - but evacuation centers were only used for the first few days after the typhoon in the island barangays. So we looked for local guidance; working with a Purok or Sitio - a local government division in each barangay - we were able to locate central areas in communities using a limited budget and help the largest number of people.
Teaming up with local government officials also helped involve community members in the effort to help ensure the chargers would be maintained later.
We also wanted to ensure the chargers were portable to help local risk reduction offices and allow responders to get them into hard-to-reach areas in need of power sources. So we used a toolbox as the basis for the design; a tool box is small and easily carried by its handle, can be opened for access to the mechanism and closed and latched for safekeeping. Toolboxes were also available everywhere in the Philippine market, so finding them was relatively simple even after the typhoon.
Distribution and benefits
When the chargers were ready, we partnered with local response group Project Bangon Bohol, to coordinate with the identified islands in the province. In Cebu, the organization has tapped into the local government of Lapu-lapu City for transportation and coordination. Field Ready and Fablab UP Cebu’s team then taught community members how install and position the solar chargers, use them and maintain them so they last as long as possible.
The units also had an unintended benefit for users - they saved money. Charging fees in the island barangays are as much as 25PHP (about 40 cents USD) per phone. Most people need to charge their phone twice daily - in a month, the cost to charge one phone can equal about 900PHP ($18 USD) or almost half of the average household monthly electric bill at 1,940PHP (38.8USD). But until local governments invest in extending power lines underwater to the barangays, the cost will remain steep. Using the solar charging kits cut power costs and allowed more people access to electricity.
Users welcomed the chargers for their ease, convenience and cost savings. Because the barangays are so remote, the chargers are a sustainable and regular power source even when no storms or other disasters threaten communities' infrastructure.
The video below shows the team in action. We 're currently seeking more funding to scale up the charging project in the Philippines and continue working with our local partners...and hope to soon offer more communities the ability to sustainably power up better, faster and cheaper!