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Sputtering Solar

By David Haldane

Jan. 8, 2024



If only the sputtering would stop.

It attacks suddenly, like an enemy soldier watching from a nearby bush. Everything is still for hours. Then, just as you’re beginning to relax thinking your travails are over, out it jumps, spraying the landscape with the rat-a-tat-tat of eye-numbing darkness.

I’m talking about our recent conversion to solar energy at the hilltop house we own in Mindanao. It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. Being from Southern California, we were familiar with the many benefits of solar. Aside from helping the environment, of course, it can be extremely helpful to your pocketbook.

So, it wasn’t hard saying yes, several years ago when a man knocked on the door of our then-home in the only American state requiring solar photovoltaic systems in every newly constructed house. Because ours wasn’t new, the stranger made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.

“Tell you what,” he said, or words to that effect. “My company will install, maintain, and operate solar panels on your roof if you commit to buying your electricity from us.” Oh yes, he added, and “just to make it worth your while we’ll give you $1,500,” more than 83,000 pesos!

That sealed the deal. And everything worked precisely as promised; though we still had to buy our electricity, it was considerably cheaper than we’d been paying the electric company for years.

Then we moved to the Philippines.

Let me begin by saying that, yes, we did build a fairly large house here. That said, let me also add that its electric bills have been staggeringly higher than we’ve ever paid anywhere, including California. And so we began searching for the soothing light of the sun.

We got two bids before deciding, one more than twice as high as the other. But even the lower price required my poor, hard-working Filipino wife to put in several extra months at her well-paying job abroad.

Ah, but then she came home with the cash and the rest worked out like a dream. I’m kidding, it’s been more like a jerkily flickering nightmare. We’d be watching a movie when suddenly the power would go off. Or the bedroom air conditioner would start stuttering and have to be reset.

Then it got worse. Everything would shut down repeatedly, beginning around 7 p.m., then again at 5 in the morning. And the power would stay off until someone staggered into the basement to fiddle with an amorphous array of switches, one of which eventually did the trick. Or, sometimes, until realizing that none would do the trick at all.

Living in the provinces, of course, we’d grown accustomed to occasional brownouts. Which is why we own a diesel generator to bridge those horrible gaps. But going solar was supposed to fix that; instead, the situation just kept getting worse.

Naturally, we constantly tormented the guy, a fellow expat, who’d sold us the thing, and, to his credit, he’d dutifully show up. Acting on his instructions, we added an automatic voltage regulator, replaced several breakers, rewired the clothes dryer, and overhauled the new solar battery.

Nothing helped.

Finally, he brought in a bona fide Filipino electrician who replaced the automatic transfer switch with a bigger one and, voila! our lights went right back on. Ok, that’s an exaggeration; let’s just say that we’re back to flickers with only occasional full-scale brownouts.

Ah, but this morning we got some excellent news. Our application for net metering has been approved. So soon we’ll be receiving credits from the local power utility for electricity we generate but don’t use. Which means that, with any luck, our next electric bill should be in the gutter.

The only downside is that infernal sputter.





David Haldane’s latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippine. This column appears weekly in the Manila Times.


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