Letting the sunshine in

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Gary M. Espino
CEO & President, Pure Energy Holdings Corp.

Gary Espino, CEO and President of Pure Energy Holdings Corporation, is capable of lighting up any room with his enthusiasm for renewable energy and well, life in general.

That broad smile of his never let up during our 90-minute recorded conversation for this week’s Boardroom Watch. It was like witnessing a whirlwind at work – in a good way.

Espino has good reason to wake up each day revved up and ready to rumble. The business for developing and supplying alternate sources of power is booming, no, make that exploding, applying his description. “There’s so many energy summits taking place here,” he says. “It’s coming out of my ears. Madami masyado. (Just too many of them.)

“I get a lot of emails – about 30 companies wanting to meet up…proposals for joint ventures… investors…vendors. Some I don’t respond to anymore. “It’s exciting talaga!” (It’s really exciting!)

Exploring Horizons
Now, if only his father Mars Espino, who passed away in 1999, were here to join in the flurry. A former Caltex sales executive-turned-businessman, Espino senior opened the world of renewable energy to his son who recalls growing fascinated with the then nascent industry. Espino recalls: “At the time in the 1970s, the Philippines was credit-worthy; everyone wanted to lend to us. With the country growing, he saw the opportunities and partnered with an Austrian to bring in the technology for hydroelectric plants like the Agus 1 (a major hydroelectric plant in Marawi) and brought in investors for the Semirara coal mine, which were among some of his activities.

“I saw what he was doing and thought that might be something I would like to do in the future.”

But first, Espino had to complete his studies, which he did, clinching a business and finance degree from the University of Southern California in 1987. He returned home, fulfilling the promise to join his father in his company. “I never thought of staying on (in the United States) – I love the Philippines and family is here.”

Big family lunch out at Neil’s Kitchen in Westgate, Alabang

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Espinos. “I first heard of the concept of natural gas in the 1980s. My father was already trying to sell it to then Energy Secretary Geronimo Velasco, but people were brushing him aside and telling him that natural gas was out of reach because it was too expensive to develop. The priority then was to develop our hydroelectric and coal resources.”

Along the way, Espino had to make a heartbreaking decision – leave the family corporate fold “to spread his wings.” He went to work for the Lopez group as a financial analyst reporting to Xavier “Eckie” Gonzalez, who assigned him to the Manila Northern Luzon Tollways Corporation (MNLTC). During his nine-year stint with them, rising to assistant vice-president at Benpres Holdings (four years) and chief financial officer of MNLTC (five years), he successfully raised US$381 million in a limited finance package with the Asian Development Bank and International Finance Corporation for the project. “We closed the deal, built it and Manny Pangilinan bought it,” Espino chortles heartily.

Besides his mentor Gonzalez, Espino admired “El Kapitan” – Geny Lopez – whose vision he found “unbelievable and inspiring,” adding: “In a few years, he turned the organization around.”

More years of exploring various horizons for Espino followed, which involved working for the international group EGIS on other infrastructure opportunities, especially south of Metro Manila and yielding to a personal dream to run his own enterprise. With his wife Isay, he started a coffee distribution and café consultancy. “If you wanted to open a coffee house, we could set you up from design to layout to food costing, all the way to your drinks menu. We provide the machines, the beans – everything.”

The provincial market supplied a gold mine for the couple, taking them from Tuguegarao to Zamboanga where they met with entrepreneurs keen to cash in on Filipinos’ interest in these trendy watering holes and growing penchant for designer brews. At one time, the Espinos boasted 30 franchises involving coffee shops and kiosks around the archipelago. The partnership appears to be a heavenly match. “I handle the contracts,” the husband says. “She does the blending.”

As what usually occurs when things are hunky dory, the unexpected happens to shake up things. One of Espino’s numerous head-hunter friends (“I have a lot of them constantly calling me,” he says.) rang up to entice him to join Solar Philippines.

With his wife and business partner Isay

The 2014 start-up of Leandro Leviste, son of Loren and Tony Leviste, was in need of someone with Espino’s skill set. “I told him I had no experience with renewable energy but he liked my infrastructure background and work with the Lopezes.

“Anyway, how far could building structures embedded with solar power be to building roads? I even overcame my reluctance at first to work for a boss, who was (at the time) only 22 years old. But he was very smart and intelligent. My mind was open and I joined him.”

Together with the team, Espino as Chief Finance Officer bagged four major deals to furnish solar panels. These included supplying 1.5MW to SM North, 1.2MW to Robinson’s Palawan, 700kWh to CityMall Roxas City and 600kWh to a small mall in Laguna. “This experience really fired me up,” Espino gushes. “I saw it was possible to convince private customers to buy and source their own power at a cheaper price and go for a clean and green electric policy.”

A year with Cleantech Solar, a Singaporean company, aiming to kick off the rooftop solar business in the Philippines, further deepened Espino’s commitment to renewable energy and led to his current post in Pure Energy Holdings Corporation.

Established in 2013, the organization features a portfolio of subsidiaries engaged in hydro and geothermal power generation. A subsidiary, Repower Energy Development Corporation (REDC) harnesses and develops indigenous natural resources as primary source of renewable energy to nearby communities. The company has expanded through studied acquisition of high-power, existing hydropower generation plants while developing through innovative approaches to maximize its potential as a source of sustainable and affordable energy. The company continues to test new and innovative forms of energy production.

Another subsidiary, Tubig Pilipinas Group, is a bulk water supply and water distribution company with operations throughout the country. It is always expanding its concession footprint in the different regions and provinces.

Compared with the years of his father’s painstaking campaign for alternative energy options, Espino faces a more luminous landscape. He cites the Renewable Energy Act of 2008 (RA 9513) – promoting the development, utilization and commercialization of renewable energy resources – as a milestone. “Now anyone can sell power, and anyone can buy their power from any source. It doesn’t have to be Meralco.”

In the future, Espino sees the intensified development and increase in solar farms, which will greatly lessen our dependency on the grid. Once the distribution of renewable energy is made more accessible and affordable, along with improvements made to battery technology, the grid system may become irrelevant. Hydroelectricity will be another very viable energy source, once the infrastructure and environmental issues are defined, and that is the reason Pure Energy boasts a big portfolio of hydroelectric projects.

With two of his children, Marty, 25, and Mikee, 17

“The future is definitely in renewable energy – I tell my kids and any young people that. These are very exciting times for renewables!”

Will all this good news ever translate into more humane utility rates for us, the perpetually harassed consumer? Will it happen in our lifetime?

With unflagging optimism, Espino declares a resounding “Yes!”

Green Electricity
He explains: “Solar panel prizes are going crazy down, which is good. Prices of solar power are now competing with that power generated by coal, and that’s also good.

“More mall-owners are installing solar power. SM started looking at it as early as 2012. In fact, Lance Gokongwei is one of Pure Energy’s shareholders. There is a growing consciousness of ‘green electricity’.”

“Even rich people in Alabang want to save and have started installing solar panels in their roofs. Pag-IBIG (Fund), a government agency, now allows loans that go to funding solar activities. It has reached that level.

“What needs to be done is to look at the fiscal policies laid out by the government [concerning renewable energy generation and distribution.]. There is confusion about their implementation that needs to be cleared up.”

Espino and his wife, a former voice major of UP’s College of Music, like to travel around the country and Asia and to the US during their free time. With some wistfulness, he says his children Marty, 25, Nikko, 21, Mikee, 17, and Isabella, 13, “lead their own lives at kami pa ang nakikipag appointment sa kanila [We are the ones who have to make an appointment to see them.]. But we get together when we can.”

While he can afford to pick up the latest gadgets on the market, Espino prefers the traditional way of committing ideas to paper by pen. “This is invaluable,” he exclaims, waving a lime-green wire-bound notebook, which captures anything and everything that strikes him as noteworthy and useful like a good quote or suggestion. If a thought were to pop up while relaxing in bed, he would immediately sit up to record it.

Really, his father Mars would have so enjoyed being around these energy-filled times.

Intimate circle, from left, brother Erich, mom and Espino with Isay (back)

WHERE DOES ONE START?
It can get overwhelming at times, trying to mitigate the effects of climate change and rapid depletion of the earth’s natural resources, a direct result of the cavalier treatment of our only home. Is it hopeless? Espino says no, but one has to be pro-active in being part of the solution, not the cause of it.

  • Start the consciousness for the environment at home. That’s always the best place to start. Are your lightbulbs energy-saving ones? Do you remember to recycle things?
  • If you are planning to build a house, why not go green already? More clients are requesting architects to incorporate green elements in their design like rooftop solar panels. More office buildings have learned to adopt vertical gardens.
  • I’m glad to see that people are more aware of keeping their surroundings clean. While waiting in traffic years ago, I would notice drivers just throwing out their cigarette butts or used scraps. I don’t see that anymore, which is great.
  • If you need funds to go green, try Pag-ibig which now approves loans for the purchase of solar panels. And that’s a government agency. This wouldn’t have happened previously, but the mindset has changed.
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