Let there be (sun)light (to power up everything I need in life).
Throughout this entire process of conceptualising, planning and building a house, I frequently found myself wishing I was doing this in the United States instead of Malaysia.
That’s simply because the resources available there and the widespread DIY culture would make everything 10x easier, but never have I wished it so fervently as I did while I was trying to equip my little house with solar power, which, in Malaysia, turned out to be an incredibly frustrating process.
Of course, part of that was my fault: I wanted to have a hand in building this system, but what little I know about electricity is limited to what I learned decades ago in secondary school, and even then I barely understood the difference between parallel and series and voltage and amperage. So I was starting off essentially clueless (but very willing to learn!).
In addition to that, I also had rather peculiar requests for my system:
It has to be off grid, which means batteries will be involved
It needs to be scalable so I can start off small but easily build up power as needed
The components need to be future-proof so the system can handle whatever my future self wants to throw at it down the road
Oh, and the house is kind of far away and in the middle of nowhere
How did these requirements fare with local solar vendors?
“Just get a generator.”
I reached out to a number of local solar companies, and was met half with silence and half with condescension.
I was told that building a 4kW system was too much, too big, too difficult (even though people in the US were happily stringing 20kW and 50kW systems on their roofs). It was going to be too expensive, and it’s not suitable for a beginner like me, it takes years and years to build so “large” a system, and hey, diesel is super cheap in Malaysia because it’s subsidised, so why don’t I just get myself a generator and be done with it?
(A friend who dabbles in the solar industry told me I had made a mistake by emailing with a female name - that they would have taken me more seriously and answered my technical questions if I had been male. I mean, seriously?)
"Woman, make me a sandwich."
While I trust that they were looking after my financial interests by recommending the typical and cheap way out by using a generator, I find it disheartening that the people who are supposed to be pushing for sustainable energy use (and who claim that their goal is to provide solar power to everyone) in this country are doing the exact opposite of that.
That being said, I understand the flippant attitude: most of them are used to only dealing with massive megawatt projects with big companies, or they only do the complete opposite of supplying very simple systems consisting of two light bulbs. Most only concern themselves with on-grid systems and don’t want to deal with the headache in the form of off-grid systems. Also, not everyone wants to have to tutor a complete noob on electricity basics and explain to her that …
I get it. But still… thanks for nothing.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Thankfully, I did have positive and helpful people around me - they were instrumental in the early stages of helping me understand my energy needs and designing an initial system, and also patiently teaching me, finally, the difference between parallel and series and voltage and amperage.
(This is the cue for a heartfelt and grateful shoutout to Ayu Abdullah from Energy Action Partners, Kyle Weber, Calvin Boey - and his parents, Boey & Shirley for introducing us! - and Murali Haripalan from Canopy Power!!!)
It took an additional few months, but I finally struck gold with Solar NRJ.
I met the CTO, Joseph Koh, while crashing a meeting he was having with a prominent company on supplying solar power kits to Orang Asli villages in Sarawak. That was a great start, and it was made greater when Joseph told me he’d read up about my tiny project and was hoping to do one for his family too!
Having somebody who gets the point of what I was trying to do and who shares the same values and principles made all of the difference - a few short weeks later, the solar installation was underway!
But first, solar power system basics
Solar power systems can either be on-grid or off-grid.
An on-grid system is when you collect energy from the sun and feed it into the existing utility power grid supplied by your local power supplier, which in Malaysia’s case, is Tenaga National Berhad (TNB). You get paid for the excess energy you produce, and this can help offset your monthly electricity bills.
An on-grid solar power system that feeds power into the utility grid. Source.
An off-grid system is a standalone one, and in the absence of a utility grid, requires batteries to store the energy being produced, plus a bunch of other components. It’s more complicated, more troublesome and more expensive than an on-grid system, but if you are located in a place without access to utility grid (or you simply want to be independent of the utility grid), then it’s the only way to go.
An off-grid solar power system that feeds power into batteries for storage. Source.
My off-grid solar power system is made up of 4 main components:
You’re likely familiar with these and may have seen them on roofs around town (and the KLIA airport!). These panels are responsible for capturing all that sunlight goodness and converting it into electrical energy.
The solar panels produce direct current (DC), whereas the utility grid and most of your appliances require alternating current (AC). The inverter acts as the intermediary that converts the DC current from the solar panels into the more useable AC.
Batteries (Off-grid only)
Since there is no utility grid to send the energy to, we need a place to store the energy being produced or it will all be wasted. This is where batteries come in. In the world of solar energy, batteries are the current limiting factor because we have yet to find a good way to efficiently store energy - in the meantime, we make do with cheaper old technology like car batteries or more expensive but slightly better technology like lithium.
Charge controller (Off-grid only)
This machine regulates the electric current that is going into or out of the batteries, just like a traffic police. It helps to prevent overcharging and improve battery performance and lifespan.
The installation of the system was completed in a day, and was done by Joseph himself (who very generously waived the installation charges), with the help of local electrician, Mr. Ravi and his boys. I was 100% a curious bystander and 0% useful, having contributed nothing but endless questions.
From my position as an observer, here’s what it takes to put together a solar power system:
Step 1: Secure solar panels on the roof
Step 2: String the wires along the side of the house
Step 3: Punch hole on the underside of the floor to string the wire into the house
Step 4: Install the distribution box and wire everything together