One Year After Typhoon Yolanda, a Philippines City Rebuilds With Sustainable Transport in Mind

This November 8 will mark the one-year anniversary of Typhoon Yolanda, the devastating storm that claimed at least 6,300 lives and displaced millions more. In Tacloban, one of the hardest-hit areas southeast of Manila, the destruction is still evident: A cement house lies partially submerged in the ocean. Large ships are grounded right next to the main street. Debris fills abandoned shops that have not yet reopened. Permanent housing and general reconstruction are a work in progress, with a long way to go.

The Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (iCSC), a Great Energy Challenge grantee, has worked for years to bring sustainable transportation via electric “jeepneys” to the Philippines. The goal has new relevance in the wake of Yolanda, also called Haiyan: Aside from cutting down on pollution and fuel costs, it could be an emergency lifeline that can operate without fuel shipments or even a functioning grid.

What’s a Jeepney?

Jeepneys stand out among the steady stream of cars and motorbikes on roads in cities like Manila. The World War II-style jeeps are retrofitted to accommodate 14 or so paying passengers, painted with artwork, and stamped with a unique name, sometimes one with a religious theme.

Public transport by jeepney has been a staple of Filipino culture since Douglas MacArthur led an effort to expel the Japanese from the Philippines in 1944. Now a new movement aims to make jeepneys cleaner by converting them to run on electricity instead of conventional fuel.

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A passenger boards one of Ejeepney fleet in their waiting station in Landmark Mall in Makati City. (Photograph by Rony Zakaria/National Geographic)

Since 2009, iCSC has retrofitted more than a dozen jeepneys in Manila into “eJeepneys” that run on a 3-mile (5-kilometer) loop around the city’s business district, Makati City. At the end of an eight-hour shift, drivers bring the eJeepneys back to a central location to be fully charged for the following morning. Unlike traditional jeepneys, eJeepneys emit no pollutants and need no fossil fuel.

iCSC got started in the Philippines in the late ‘90s through successful efforts to prevent construction of a coal-fired power plant. Building on that victory, the group set out to implement alternative energy solutions. It took two years of preparation before they finally placed their first eJeepney on the road.

The savings on fuel and engine maintenance make eJeepneys financially attractive to potential investors. Noel Dimaano currently runs eJeepney operations in Makati City, explained that iCSC was “able to prove that the electric jeepney is a commercially viable activity.”

Driving eJeepneys Forward

Challenges have tested, and will continue to test, iCSC’s mettle. In the beginning, they needed to retrofit jeepneys damaged from the storm surge, which led to longer-than-expected delays, and they suffered setbacks when trying to get city permits. On the positive side, the eJeepneys’ batteries have lasted longer than the one-year period iCSC anticipated, and the organization has now generated enough payback to grow. Twelve more jeeps are anticipated for retrofit in Makati City.

The Philippines gets more than half of its energy from renewable sources such as geothermal and hydropower, but its grid still relies on fossil fuels for more than a third of the electricity. iCSC’s next step is to disconnect the eJeepneys from the grid and create solar-powered charging stations for them, and it now hopes to make Tacloban the eJeepney capital of the Philippines, according to program coordinator Reina Garcia. The eJeepney center will be 90 percent independent from the grid, when construction is completed this month, insulating it from outages as well as from a dependence on gas supplies.

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Local residents talk with eJeepney driver Garry Dela Cruz (in driver’s seat) in Tent City, a resettlement area for typhoon victims in Tacloban. (Photograph by Rony Zakaria/National Geographic)

Plans to bring ejeepneys to Tacloban have been well received by local authorities. As communities in Tacloban rebuild, iCSC has already scheduled eJeepney routes along the resettlement areas. This long-term solution is also contributing to shorter-term restoration by providing transport for the displaced population.

Beyond sustainable transportation, the goal is to make Tacloban the place to learn about solar and clean energy technologies. Tacloban is already a center for education as students travel there from other islands in the region. Capitalizing on this strategic location, iCSC plans to launch a solar scholars program to train government and NGO workers to build capacity and implement clean energy solutions in Tacloban and elsewhere in the region.