Going solar

For the last two months now, I have welcomed sunlight into our home in a way that has made me conscious of the sun’s life-giving presence. Thanks to the advice and assistance of Bert Lina, the visionary entrepreneur behind Air21 and other creative interventions beneficial to society at large, I have installed solar panels on my rooftop. The solar energy I harvest on a reasonably bright day takes care of about 17 percent of my household electricity needs. This is not insignificant, but is not very much either if one merely looks at it from the vantage point of savings.

Solar panels and, to a certain extent, storage batteries, have gone down considerably in price over the years. Still, the initial capital outlay may be such as to dissuade a typical middle-class family from going solar. In my case, I chose to dispense with storage batteries, relying instead on an inverter system to supplement our daytime electricity requirements.  This simply means I can’t store power; I must completely rely on Meralco for electricity from sundown to sunrise.

My decision was primarily driven by curiosity. I have been to countries where, from a train, one marvels at endless stretches of landscape carpeted with solar panels or dotted with rows and rows of gigantic windmills—all producing renewable power from Nature. I was struck to see apartment buildings all over Turkey that uniformly have solar water heaters on their roof decks.

There is plenty of sun and wind where we are on the Earth’s surface. Why can’t we tap this natural blessing, the way we have used our geothermal and hydroelectric resources? The answer, I am told, is that renewable energy remains costly because of the technology, and so it is highly subsidized by governments. Because of this, solar power is mostly seen as an alternative for communities lying outside the grid, but largely uneconomical in places where steady power supply is available from power plants driven by natural gas, coal, or diesel.  But this may change sooner than later in the light of the demonstrated capability of oligopolistic power producers to dictate power rates in a flawed market like ours.

I am not much of a partisan in the climate change debate. To me, the issue remains very complex and lends itself quite easily to conclusions based on insufficient data. But one doesn’t need to be a climate change advocate in order to see the great injury that is dealt on the environment by the unabated release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by existing power generation technologies.

I used to scoff at the idea of measuring one’s personal “carbon footprint” and being asked what one is doing to reduce it. The question reminds me of those religious cults that proliferated in the 1980s whose members roamed the streets asking people if they knew God.

But I have slowly begun to understand what it means to be an insignificant but responsible steward of this great planet. I have become conscious of the Earth’s limited resources, its finite life, and what we need to do so that it can continue to be a sheltering home to succeeding generations.

One of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche is a passage from his early essay, “On truth and lies in an extra-moral sense,” in which he offers a fable portraying human arrogance. The opening paragraph goes like this: “In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die. One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature.”

What humans lack in terms of physical strength to secure their survival, says Nietzsche, they try to make up for through cunning and intellect in order to control their environment. In the course of doing this, they begin to think that the picture of the world they paint comes from the structure of the world itself, rather than from the particular way of life they have built. Such is today’s “rational man,” he says, who has to give way to the “intuitive man” who can see the world as “eternally new.”

My personal foray into solar power did not come from such elevated thoughts as Nietzsche’s. But I can’t help drawing a sense of wonderment from being able to see how many kilowatt hours the sun has showered on my home on any given day. The experience fills me with awe, gratitude, and humility. How many other planets are there, like the Earth, whose sun, neither too near nor too far, offers just enough warmth to sustain life?

These days I carefully scrutinize our monthly electricity bill not just from the perspective of a harassed consumer but also from the eyes of a child of the universe who has become more mindful of the need to change the way we live in order to prolong the life of our planet. I feel good seeing the direct connection between my home and the sun.

Going solar, even if only partly, has motivated me to find ways to further reduce our household’s electricity consumption. I have replaced all our light bulbs with low-wattage LEDs. I switch off all the nonessential lights in our house, and sparingly use air-conditioning.  I have relieved our refrigerator of a lot of expired food that is no longer edible. I’m certain the exploration won’t stop there. Going solar compels a broad reexamination of one’s lifestyle.