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Let There Be Light: Solar Powered Monastery

Clockwise from top:
The remodeled chapel at Christ in the Desert; the solar-powered computer room, where the Brothers help support the monastery by designing web sites; and one of the monastery's eight solar arrays.

Siemens Technology Powers Largest Private
Solar-Energy Installation in New Mexico

Ten years ago, the Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert, located in the high desert of rugged Chama Canyon in northern New Mexico, received a single lightbulb powered by solar energy. The gift was significant in that it signaled the possibility of affordable electricity for the community. Today—thanks to technology from Siemens—the monastery, now much enlarged and improved, is completely solar powered.

Christ in the Desert is a place of incredible beauty and serenity, which offers the solitude its founders sought for lives dedicated to "prayer, study, work and praise." When the monastery was built 32 years ago, the remoteness of the site meant the loss of comforts most people take for granted. Keenly felt was the absence of electric power.

Though primitive, the original facilities - designed for eight monks and six guests—seemed huge at first. When Brother Philip (now Abbot Philip, head of the monastery) came to Christ in the Desert in the mid-1970's, there were but three monks. "We had only wood-burning stoves for heat, and kerosene lamps for light," he recalls. "The nearest electric grid lay thirteen miles away, but it may have well been on the moon. Given the rough terrain, it would have cost $1.1 million just to connect us. Impossible!"

In the beginning...
Like most Benedictines, the brothers worked hard to support themselves. For many years, they raised much of their own food, maintained their buildings, took care of health emergencies, sold hand-crafted items and gratefully accepted donations from their guests.

As the monastery gathered strength, new brothers arrived almost every year, bringing a diversity of education and talents from many nations, including Italy, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. With applicants waiting, facilities became woefully overcrowded. An unused goat barn was converted to ten cells, with but one shower and toilet.

In recent years, the population of the community has ranged between twenty-five and thirty, including (by 1996) the twelve "life-committed" monks needed to qualify a Benedictine monastery as an abbey. All were crammed into or around the facility built for eight! To make matters worse, the monastery's modest income was no longer adequate to support its increased population, particularly with health and building insurance premiums skyrocketing. Policies were regularly canceled at each year's end because the hazards of burning wood and kerosene. Obviously, the monastery needed space, a safer environment, and more income. Things had to change.

Building strength
The monks, who also support a convent and two monasteries in Mexico, intensified their search for good sources of additional income. They opened a thrift shop in Santa Fe, dividing the income with the city's Rape Crisis Center.

At about the same time, they began to look at the challenges confronting them in a new way. Though the Brothers had always kept themselves debt-free, they decided the time had come to shoulder a farsighted program to rebuild and expand their facilities. Designed to use cost-efficient, environmentally friendly materials, and to offer a model of "sustainable living," the plan called for structures that the monks (and volunteers) could help build, and then operate, maintain, and repair at minimal cost.

The chapel has already been remodeled, and the new cloister where the brothers will reside was consecrated on September 8, 1996 - a day of particular rejoicing since it coincided with services to celebrate the monastery's spiritual achievements and stable level of development. Still in the planning stage are a convento, with kitchen, dining room and parlors, as well as remodeled guest quarters.

Even using building materials carefully chosen to save money - thermally efficient straw bales for most exterior walls, recycled newspapers for ceilings, wood from standing dead timber, and radiant-energy heat pipes set in the floor in sand, with bricks on top for easy repair - the cost of the total program is estimated at $3.5 million!

"Frankly, the figure staggers us," recounts Abbot Philip. "When one builds in such a remote location, everything costs a mint! But the possibility of sustainable living inspired us to try. We realized we had to reach out to the world - for funds, expertise, and volunteer labor. And we were also still trying to find ways ourselves to generate significant income."

Home on the page
The solution to the latter challenge came as a suggestion from Brother Aquinas, a computer expert with a degree in engineering: The monks, whose order dates back to the sixth century, could take up one of the world's newest vocations - designing sites for the World Wide Web. "Few of us even knew what a home page or a web site was," Abbot Philip recalls, "but we had faith in the idea - and ordered our first computers."

The brothers assigned to the computer project presented the monastery - and the world - with an extraordinary web site that is distinctive for the quality of its art and use of archaic script. Cyberspace visitors to Christ in the Desert are treated to beautiful graphics and information about everything there, from the Benedictine order to the monastery's building program. They can visit the chapel, listen to a Gregorian chant, make reservations for the guest house, purchase items from the gift shop, learn where to send donations and even place prayer requests.

Attracting attention near and far, the work of the talented and tenacious brothers led to orders for web sites from several corporations and other groups, including the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation.

Virtual Vatican
Now Brother Aquinas and his team are almost entirely consumed with the project of a lifetime: design of the web site for the Vatican! When the site becomes public later this year, it will likely be the biggest and most beautiful the world has yet seen.

Web work for the Vatican has led to the addition of fifteen new computers, supplied by Microsoft, and to the hope of a donor for a microwave telephone system which would greatly enhance transmission speed and provide relief from exorbitant cellular phone costs. "We need an angel!" Abbot Philip exclaims.

Powering desert dreams       
Solar technology from Siemens has proved the perfect solution to powering the monastery's dreams - from its building program to its new profession. "Our first solar-powered lightbulb was a novelty," reflects Abbot Philip, "but we soon realized that the sun offered us abundant energy. We've had a few solar panels from Siemens for years and know them to be the best—affordable, efficient and almost maintenance-free."

To meet the monastery's growing need for electricity, Direct Power & Water, a leading solar-energy systems integrator in New Mexico, initially designed and installed a 3.6-kilowatt system comprised of four twelve-module arrays from Siemens. But with its vast new assignment from the Vatican, Christ in the Desert has now doubled its solar power, increasing capacity to 7.2 kilowatts. "We have eight arrays, each mounted on a 'tracker' that follows the sun as it moves across the sky," Abbot Philip explains. "This maximizes energy and provides reserves we can store for use at night and during inclement weather."

Besides lighting the chapel and main building, the electricity generated from the sun is running all the computers and cellular phones, and even the kitchen appliances, including four huge refrigerators. It is also powering the tools needed for construction - from air compressors to concrete mixers. And soon it will power the pumps that will provide a complete water system, with radiant heating in the winter, and a wetlands system to purify wastewater.

Model community
The monastery's sustainable building program has rapidly become world news, especially in Africa, Asia and South America, where the need for solar power is acute. An active correspondence has developed between the monastery and a number of remote Benedictine communities deeply interested in water purification, wetlands systems and protection of dwindling resources. Indeed, Christ in the Desert is becoming a global model for those who seek to renew rather than waste the resources of the world.

"Part of the mystique of our monastery is that brothers come from all over the world to study with us," Abbot Philip says. "We hope that other interested people will visit as well. Sustainability and diversity are both important to our community, because we believe they represent the future."

Editor's note: For more information about Christ in the Desert, please visit its web site at


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