I got the power… installing solar panels

Photo of Pat Drake in her garden, newly installed solar panels on the roof of her house behind her.
Making the most of solar power. Photo credit: Pat Drake

Tuesday 19 January 2021. This is the day the roof of my suburban semi-detached house becomes host to eight solar panels and a storage battery. I find myself excited at this tiny step towards self-sufficiency and realise – as the day dawns blustery, rainy, with terrible visibility and awful warnings of Storm Christoph ringing out over the airwaves – that my decision is the triumph of hope over experience. It would be more self-sufficient to have a wind turbine...

Notwithstanding any of the above, cooped Covid-safe in the kitchen as two Lithuanian men set to work in the loft and on the roof, I reflect how it was inevitable that I would be drawn to the scheme brokered by the city council that enables thousands of local houses to go solar all at once. The scheme is one whereby the council elicited interest from householders and then held an auction for different contractors to bid for all of the work. The council did due diligence on the bids, the people got a decent price and EEC Solar got the contract for 1,800 installations. It seems that, despite Brexit, it is European workers who are the ones to clamber about with trunking and batteries to connect the panels.

For me, energy and sources of power can be elementally beautiful, although I know well that they can often be causes of damage and sources of corruption. As a child we holidayed at my grandparents’ home in Cumbria, in the shadow of the now decommissioned Sellafield nuclear power plant, its massive white circular cooling towers reflecting the much earlier Grey Croft stone circle set amongst the daisies in the bright green grass between the power plant and the sea. It was there that my mother persuaded the coastal request stop train to reverse when it missed out her station even though she’d pressed the bell. It was from my grandparents’ window, ready for bed in our pyjamas, that we children watched the daily mail train hurtle under the railway bridge at 7pm without fail, marvelling at the connectedness of the postal service and feeling ownership of it.

My grandfather had worked at the Sellafield Factory during the second world war, having dispatched his wife and two children to Canada to join family already there for what turned out to be five years, though grandma came back after three. After the war my mother returned, met my father, had us; but her brother stayed in British Columbia. And so it came to pass a generation or so later that, with little children of our own, my sister and brother and I connected with large numbers of family and friends, youngish adults like ourselves.

These were independent-minded people, skilful and inventive, and for the first time I stayed in places that generated their own power, from water largely. One of these new kin managed an entire hydro-electric power station. Another built a house on a cliff on an island with the basement bedroom having actual rocks for the floor. A third couple built their home in a small community that was only accessible by boat. She ran the post office that floated on a pontoon and he planted whole mountains of trees whilst jiggling the stock market on the computer powered by home-made electricity stored in capacitors at the bottom of the cliff. You couldn’t have the washing machine and computer on at the same time, yet it was at that house that my own eight-year old daughter learned to play Nintendo. 

Time passed and I found myself working in Australia, where the sun beats down in the coastal city strip from Queensland to South Australia in the summer, and relentlessly all the year round in the huge central region that’s bigger than Europe. You can see the power of living off-grid in contrast with the gritty competitive power relations that pervade institutional, business and city life.

In Australia, these clash visibly in the struggles for indigenous knowledge and the dominance of western culture. People in the sheep and cattle stations in the bush and the outback are inventive and frugal, with relations between rivers, fire, climate and stars understood to be elemental and critical. These are in contrast to the tourist resorts and facilities with fancy-pants menus and huge airconditioned buses. Interaction between worlds is mutually dependent and reinforcing but in tension with continued mining for coal.

In our own tiny corner of the world – though not all would agree that pylons marching over the landscape parcelling us up in cabling looks elemental or beautiful – there is an aesthetic majesty, a dramatic, visible energy of social justice in bringing light and heat to all our homes. Solar panels sadly are not aesthetically pleasing, and, so far, they are privatised rather than equitably distributed. But there is romance behind them with optimism ahead of making a small contribution to reduction of carbon emissions. For the time being this outweighs their ugliness, because having the means of harnessing power to our own house imagines us pioneers.

As said, it was inevitable that I’d be hooked.

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