First Gen, Unilever forge a mutual journey to ‘clean’ energy future » Manila Bulletin Business

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By Myrna M. Velasco

The energy future of the Philippines remains some sort of a ‘Rorschach test’ – as each stakeholder grapples in interpreting what really matters for the economy, energy security, climate and the environment.

Nonetheless, for some energy firms – social consciousness on the ‘ills of carbon impacts of energy technologies on the environment’ come first and high on their business models.

Benjie Yap (left), Chairman of Unilever Philippines Inc. and Federico R. Lopez, Chairman of First Gen Corporation, are shown signing the power supply agreement for renewable energy-sourced electricity to underpin the operations of Unilever in the country.

And with the ‘power of choice’ now effectively knocking in the doors of big-ticket customers – industry players like First Gen Corporation of the Lopez Group can now take on that opportunity of ‘making clean energy’ their bargaining chip not only in catering to the power needs of ecologically-discerning customers but of assuring a sustainable and sound environmental future for the next generation.

First Gen’s subsidiary – its licensed retail electricity supplier (RES) unit First Gen Energy Solutions (FGES) – is legitimately taking that pathway. And just recently, it cornered a new ally in Unilever Philippines Inc. in what could be fairly considered a concerted journey into ‘carbon positive energy future’ – anchored on not just reinforcing their respective ‘brands’ but taking their sustainability goals to a whole new level.

Unilever signed up a supply agreement with FGES to procure its energy needs from a geothermal plant – initially satisfying its aims of having 100-percent renewable energy to power up its chain of operations.

Fundamentally, this is about giving the customer that ‘power of choice’ when it comes to underwriting power supply contracts with preferred suppliers and energy source under the dictum of Retail Competition and Open Access (RCOA) policy of the restructured electricity sector.

Not just a ‘buzz phrase’

As qualified by Unilever Philippines Chairman Benjie Yap, “sustainability is not just a buzzword for us,” asserting further that “to create lasting positive impact, it necessarily means that we must be mindful of everything we do – including choosing the sources of energy that don’t compromise present or future generations of Filipinos to power our operations.” Unilever products are largely present in every home – and over the years, it is a strong consumer brand that Filipinos could count on either for their nutrition, hygiene or personal care needs.

“We have organized ourselves around a strong commitment to meet people’s everyday needs,” Mr Yap enthused,  – and yes, the environment and the future generation are very much into the equation.

He said “our Cavite facility is running on 100-percent geothermal energy – with renewable energy accounting for 15% of our total energy mix,” adding that “while switching to renewable energy sources have led to a decrease in our carbon emissions by 31-percent for this year, we are not stopping there.” On a global scale, Mr Yap qualified that Unilever “set an ambitious target of being carbon positive by 2030, sourcing 100-percent of our total energy across operations from renewable sources by such time.”

For the Philippines, he indicated that the power supply pact with First Gen “will enable our Paco and Pasig facilities to be powered by geothermal energy, making Unilever Philippines’ factory operations 100-percent powered by renewable energy in 2018.”

Lopez group: steering the clean energy ship

While policy uncertainties anyhow abound on the energy-climate nexus for the country, the Lopez group although solitary in that track is not breaking off from high-minded pursuit of totally embracing a ‘clean energy portfolio’.

Still emotional from lost lives and the scale of devastation that super typhoon Yolanda’s wrath had inflicted in 2013, First Gen Chairman Federico R. Lopez professed that the cataclysm “was our wake-up call that so much of our world had changed irreversibly,” contending then that this time needs to be different. Hence, this triggered a decisive point for the company in its declaration that “we would not build or invest in any coal-fired power plants.”

He reckoned that “today, we continue to be the only large power company in the country to have done so unequivocally,” affirming the conglomerate’s belief that “it’s possible to develop as a nation and uplift lives from poverty without destroying our common home and planet in the process.”

Mr. Lopez cited the forbidding scenarios: the warmest years on record came in succession in years 2014, 2015 and 2016; the earth’s water cycles are becoming very extreme with record droughts, floods, wildfires, typhoons and polar ice loss happening in a magnitude not ever experienced before; there have been massive losses in species and diversity – entailing then that the world is now into that era of mass extinction “where we could lose half of all species before the end of the century.” The last one on this phenomenon was 65 million years ago and stretching over thousands of years, but this time, the pace is happening faster in just matter of decades.

“If the planet is to stay livable, global emissions need to peak no later than 2020 and we’ve got to be off carbon by 2050 if we want to stay within the 2.0 degrees of warming,” he stressed.

Fusing in ‘carbon positive’ pathway

While appetite is yet waning for ‘energy tech shift’ for many in the power industry, Mr. Lopez at any rate sees optimism in the fast-declining cost of core RE technologies (i.e. solar and wind) – and more importantly, in the preference of some customers to take up ‘the green option’ in their energy usage.

The FGES-Unilever deal, according to both parties, is not just rooted on having that ‘streetlight effect’, but it is a deeper sense of commitment on to achieving ‘carbon positive’ goals within prescribed timeframe – for the sake of the planet and the overall well being of generations to come.

Post the Paris climate pact, Mr Lopez affirms that there are factors inspiring hope for ‘cleaner energy alternatives’ – in that “technology is moving fast, renewables like solar and wind are dropping fast and installations are doubling every five (5) years, emphasizing that “at this rate, RE will approach 100-percent installation by 2050.”

He added the fuel economy of cars also gets better – and this is manifested with electric vehicles getting cheaper and have been on wider commercial-scale rollout in many countries.

Mr. Lopez told its new ‘clean energy confederate’ Unilever that “it’s inspiring to see you and partner companies like RFM doing well by doing so much good for the world. Consider us kindred spirits, and even partners, on your continuing journey to make the world a better place.”

For Unilever, Mr Yap propounds that the deal with First Gen “underscores our commitment to sustainable manufacturing operations. We continually improve the way we manufacture, distribute and operate so that we can positively impact our customers, communities and the environment.”

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