A couple of weeks ago, during the Big Deluge, a Facebook friend and former student of mine asked if I found the vulnerability of self-sufficient living exciting. It was a good question and got me thinking. It is exciting? Or is just hard work?
The decision to live off the grid still rates as one of the best ones I’ve ever made. When we made our plans to move to our bush block we looked at the alternatives but a fully off-grid solar power system was always the preferred option. The main power line, however, runs across the bottom part of the property, so to get the comparison I phoned Country Energy, the local utility company, and asked what it would cost to connect to the grid. After asking his raft of questions and locating the property on his computer, the Country Energy guy told me it would cost $24,000 to run the line from the power pole to our yurt.
“Well,” said I, “that makes the decision to go off-grid easy.”
There was a couple of seconds silence at the other end and then the guy half laughed and said that was unfeasible. “Anyway," he said, "there’s probably only about 20 houses in Australia that are off-grid."
“What? I can name at least 20 that are off-grid in my immediate district.”
He remained sceptical but it didn’t matter. We went ahead and installed a photo-voltaic system that delivered .9kw hours per day. Inadequate, but it was the most we could afford at the time.
Fast forward four years. In January this year I upgraded the system with a new inverter and three new banks of solar panels. The system now delivers 2.1kwh and I can run Actual Applicances. It’s still not a big system, but this is a very small house and my power requirements are minimal. I don’t own a TV, there's no electric cooking or heating, and the appliances I run are basic and have been chosen specifically for low energy consumption.
On days like today – overcast and threatening rain – I need to keep an eye on the inverter and if the wattage falls below a certain level I need to run the battery charger via the generator. The generator is petrol-driven so the house is not entirely free of fossil fuels... yet. Ultimately I’d like to learn how to make my own biofuels and run the generator on that.
The advantages of being off-grid are many and they far outweigh the disadvantages. There is a vulnerability in that if something goes wrong, I can’t phone up the power company and get someone round to fix it. The system needs regular maintenance but once a routine for maintenance is established, it’s easy to do and doesn’t take much time or, thankfully, expertise. Every time I turn on a switch or consider using an appliance I need to consider whether there will be sufficient power in the system. There are some things, for example the food dehydrator which needs to be on for up to 12 hours depending on what I’m drying, I can only use if the forecast is for a full day of sunshine. On the other hand, appliances that will only be on for a few minutes I can usually use without worrying. Power tools I run straight from the generator.
There are no power bills. None. Ever. The installation cost of the system plus my upgrade this year have cost less than half of the original quoted cost of connecting to the grid.
Being self-sufficient in power, water and waste management is not so much exciting as grounding. There is a constant awareness that I am reliant on nature; whether that’s the daily renewable resource of the sun, use of water during times of climate variability, or the linear system of consumption to waste. There is also the awareness of needing to turn that consumption-to-waste system into a circular rather than linear system. I have a composting toilet that assists in this process by producing compost to feed the soil in which I grow food. My longterm aim is become even more self-sufficient through producing more of my own food.
Self-sufficiency comes in varying degrees. Not everyone wants to deal with managing their own waste or with the uncertainty of water resources and a power system that relies on sunshine. However, for those who do wish to make the switch to off-grid living, the rewards are independence and the knowledge that your carbon footprint is minimal and in a small way, you are ensuring that your little part of the planet is regenerating.