Robin Tennant Wood

Professional Services - Research & Writing

  • 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.

    panelsOn 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.

  • After my exultant post about all the rain we had in January, El Niño arrived with a vengeance and since then, the Kookaburra Cottage rain gauge has recorded just 7mms of rain, plus one spider. The local weather guru, interviewed on the community radio station a couple of weeks ago, said that we needed a minimum of 96mms of rain to officially get us out of drought.

    The green grass of early summer turned brown, then crunchy and a couple of heavy winds in May whipped up the dust on the road and the driveway, leaving the clay exposed and hard. I’ve been very grateful that I had the alpacas rehomed at the beginning of summer because there’s no feed in that paddock now. The small mob of roos on the property have been grazing down in the creekbed and around the dam, which was more a puddle more than a dam. The creek that bisects the property is an ephemeral stream, or chain-of-ponds, that rises about 400 metres further up the hill from me. I walked up there the other day and found that while the spring wasn’t running, the ground was still wet and the grass quite green, so I guessed that it wouldn’t take much rain to get it going again.

    Tuesday was cold and a wet fog enveloped us for most of the day. A couple of times the clouds rolled in but there was no rain. Then Tuesday night I heard the familiar thumping of wings against the flyscreens on the windows. The rain moths were there. Four of five of them flinging rainmoth copythemselves towards the light inside and beating themselves against the window and door on the verandah. Rain moths are big, bigger than bogongs. The females can have a wing span of up to 16cms apparently, although the ones here weren’t that big – more like 10cms across, I’d estimate. They lay their eggs in the ground and the larvae hatch in autumn when rain is imminent. Or so the theory goes. Anyway, Wednesday dawned with a watery sunshine and very little in the way of clouds so I figured the rain moths may have got it wrong. It’s been known to happen.

    Thursday was fine but there was a report of an intense east coast low system moving down from the north that would bring bucketloads of rain. Yep. Bucketloads. That’s the technical term. On Friday the warnings about the impending deluge started to get serious. Batten down all hatches and prepare for heavy rain and damaging winds, said the Bureau of Meteorology. The online interactive map had the rain arriving here at around 7.30am Saturday. I cut a couple of day’s worth of firewood and brought it inside and then put another stack of logs under the verandah awning where they would remain out of the rain. I noticed Ken over the road moving his sheep from the low paddock up to higher ground.

    Saturday morning Rocky woke me, as usual, at around 6.45 by landing on the bed and demanding to go out. The pre-dawn was damp with a light misting rain. I checked the cover over the Alfa to make sure it was secure and did a quick walk around the house to make sure anything else that needed to stay dry would do so. Around 7.30, dead on time, the rain started to sweep in from the north-east.
    Saturday afternoon I realised that water was building up against the side of the shed – the side where my generator and solar power batteries are. An hour later, and soaked, I had dug a channel to direct the flood away from the shed and crowbarred a brick out of a retaining wall on the other side of the shed to allow the dammed water behind it into the new channel.

    As I write, Sunday morning, my rain gauge has recorded over 100mms of rain in just over 24 hours. The dam is overflowing, the main tank is overflowing, the new tank is filling, the flood mitigation work is holding (just), the creek is raging and there are two waterfalls cascading over the rocks on the far side of the creek. Ken’s low paddock over the road at Emu Flat is a large lake and there are reports that the road between here and Braidwood is cut in the usual places. The rain continues to fall heavily with no sign of a let-up until at least tomorrow.
    It is true that in this country droughts are typically broken by floods. That being the case, the drought has broken. A La Niña winter will set us up well for spring. Those rain moths got it right again.


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