[A guest post from FY15 Artist Fellowship Program (AFP) Grantee Monica Bose]
In January 2013, I traveled to my ancestral village, the remote island community of Katakhali, Bangladesh as part of my collaborative art and advocacy project, STORYTELLING WITH SARIS. As soon as I got off the ferry onto the small fishing boat that would take me to the island, I noticed a small solar panel on top of the boat. After a two hour boat ride, we walked the final leg (about one hour) to Katakhali Village. The project involves writing, printmaking on saris, oral history and video with 12 Katakhali women who have recently learned to read and are battling the impacts of climate change. I spent 10 days on the island and visited all 12 women’s homes. I was surprised to find that several of them had small solar panels on their scrappy tin roofs.
When I asked the women where they got the solar panels and why, I was amazed by their clear understanding of the economic and other benefits. First, they said, “Solar is clean — there is no smoke like when we burn oil and our children can study at night.” And then they explained, “After three years, it’s free! And we can can have plenty of light at night from the sun that shines during the day.” They told me that they had entered into three year contracts where they pay a monthly fee (of about 300 takas, approximately $5 but more than 20% of their monthly income). At the end of three years, they own the panel outright. The panels are made locally in Bangladesh. Katakhali is off the grid and solar energy is making huge inroads there as well as all over Bangladesh. I started thinking about how fantastic it was that these women, many of whom had only been to 1st or 2nd grade, had figured out that it made sense to invest in solar. And if the poorest people in the world can put 20% of their income toward solar energy, shouldn’t I be willing to do it also? After all, as Americans we contribute to one-fourth of the world’s carbon emissions and our per person energy consumption is astronomically high. Our overuse of fossil fuels is creating climate change, and unless we cut those emissions fast, Katakhali and 20% of Bangladesh’s landmass will be submerged under the sea along with other coastal areas around the world. Ironically, Bangladesh only contributes a negligible amount to carbon emissions but stands to lose the most. Climate change is clearly the most important moral issue of our time and I felt compelled to take personal responsibility and integrate renewable energy into STORYTELLING WITH SARIS.
After returning to DC, I started researching solar and other renewable energy options and found out that the federal government is giving a 30% tax credit toward the total cost of solar installation — the panels, the labor, everything! Plus there are even bigger incentives available in DC, where you can sell your future solar energy as credits (Solar Renewable Energy Credits or SRECs). I also learned that I can ask Pepco to buy renewable energy for me and decided to switch to local wind energy. I still get my bill from Pepco but Pepco buys wind energy equivalent to my usage. It’s not a direct transfer of wind energy into my home, but it forces Pepco to move towards more renewable energy. In Spring 2013, I got more information on renewables at environmental conferences and reached out to some of the folks in DC who are organizing solar coops and otherwise promoting solar energy, like the World Wildlife Fund. Once I understood the math, the decision was easy. I decided to go ahead and buy my own solar panels (you can also rent them, which is free, but then you don’t get the upside). In three years, I should make back my investment, and the rate of return is much higher than mutual funds. I next put my information into a solar bid website, and voila! I started getting dozens of emails and calls from various installers. It was too much to handle and I was starting to get overwhelmed. In the end, I selected a solar installer not based on the lowest bid, but based on a recommendation from someone I know. That was back in April 2014, and I finally have my solar panels up and approved by the DC government just now in January 2015.
What took so long? Well, we had to figure out the financing and get some loans. (I hope to have the loans mostly paid back once I get my tax rebate and sell my SRECS this spring.) And then I had to get my roof up to shape to make sure that it can properly hold the solar panels for years to come. I have a 100-year old townhouse with a partially flat roof, and we found out right before solar installation that it needed an upgrade. I now have 31 top-of-the-line solar panels, each with a micro-inverter that measures the amount of energy absorbed. I can monitor it on my laptop. I’m impatiently waiting for it to be hooked up by Pepco. Once that is done, the energy generated by my panels will go directly into my house and be used toward my energy needs. Any excess energy that I don’t use will enter the Pepco grid and be used by others but I will get credit for it. So, when I’m on vacation in the summer, I’ll still be getting usable energy from my roof.
So why are my solar panels part of my art project? Because the goal of STORYTELLING WITH SARIS is to use the inspiring personal stories of 12 women from Katakhali to activate Americans to reduce our carbon footprint. After meeting the women and seeing first hand how resilient and empowered they are, and how bravely they are standing up to climate change, I realized that I want to follow these women over the course of at least a decade to see how their lives evolve along with climate change. And I want this project — these women’s actual lives – to trigger change and lead to action on climate. I also feel a deep personal connection with Katakhali, where my mother was born and raised. It is a stunningly gorgeous place to boot, with no trash, no cars, no stores, and the most wonderful people. As an artist, I have decided to merge my art with my advocacy. It’s not enough for me to care only about aesthetics and theory. I need to reduce my own carbon footprint and work to convince others to do the same. Our world is in crisis, and I want to use art to create an emotional trans-border connection between the United States and Bangladesh. Renewable energy is the future of our planet — it is the clear answer to combatting climate change. If we are willing to pay for solar and other renewable energy, we can consume all the energy we want and not even cut back on our lifestyle. We each have to be willing to make a short-term financial sacrifice for the future of our planet.
On January 30, 2015, I am heading back to Katakhali to meet with the women again and to organize a climate information sharing and adaptation workshop in partnership with the International Centre for Climate and Development. We will also be doing a new series of woodblock sari prints, using imagery with references to climate change and renewable energy. In DC, I have launched a series of workshops where participants write and print pledges to reduce carbon footprint on saris. These saris will be used for a performance in DC and eventually be sent to Katakhali to be worn by women there.
I will report soon on how my new panels are working and what impact it has on my energy bill. I will also be blogging from Katakhali about my experiences there. Do contact me if you want to learn more about renewable energy and how to reduce your carbon footprint at firstname.lastname@example.org. The federal 30% solar credit might not be extended beyond 2106, so now is the time to act! Please follow my blog on Facebook and storytellingwithsaris.com/blog.
— Monica Bose, FY15 AFP Grantee