Michelle and Cam are living off the grid entirely at Sunflower Farm, their homestead in Eastern Ontario.
PHOTO: CAM MATHER
More than a decade ago, my wife, Michelle, and I moved from a busy suburban street to 150 acres in the Ontario bush, where our nearest neighbors are three miles away. Ditto for the nearest utility pole. We'd transitioned to living off the grid with little knowledge about renewable energy — or electricity, for that matter — and had to quickly put into practice our home-schooling mantra of “lifelong learning.”
To say that the learning curve was steep is an understatement. Back then, there were no good books on the subject of renewable energy for homes, and the information you could find was pieced together by pioneers who were learning as they went along. Consulting with any local electrician was a waste of time, so we learned by the seat of our pants. Luckily, we developed a network of helpful and skilled friends along the way. We came to realize that the more things we learned to do ourselves, the more independent we would become, which is the theme of the book I’ve just written, Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.
As we begin to experience the converging challenges of resource depletion, climate change, and the ongoing financial crisis, we need to make ourselves more resilient to shocks to the system.
If you do decide to go off the grid, generating your own electricity from the sun and wind provides an incredible sense of well-being — not only from a sense of independence, but also from the realization that you aren’t using any electricity that comes from coal. Powering your home with renewable energy is a huge step toward reducing your carbon footprint. We started with a fairly small solar-electric system that the previous owners of our home had installed, and we’ve steadily added more panels. As we learned more about peak oil, we were determined to reduce our use of nonrenewable fossil fuels for both cooking and powering our gasoline generator; there are times when there isn’t enough sunlight or wind to charge our off-grid batteries, so we use a fossil fuel-powered generator as a backup.
Wonderful Wind, Super Solar
When we moved in, there was an old wind turbine on a 60-foot tower on our property, but several years ago we decided to replace it with a new Bergey 1-kilowatt turbine on a 100-foot tower. We are surrounded by forests (not optimal for wind generation), so putting up a 100-foot tower set the turbine about 30 feet above the trees to capture some of the stronger winds. We decided to film the installation process and sell a video of it via our publishing company, Aztext. I’m a visual learner, and if I could have watched a video of the process of putting all the pieces of our off-the-grid system together, it would have made our efforts go more smoothly.
The new turbine required us to upgrade our battery bank from a 12-volt to a 24-volt system, so we also upgraded our inverter and added more solar panels. In the previous year, we ran our backup generator about 15 times. In the year after we put up the turbine and added solar panels, we ran the generator just twice. This means that, on many days, we now have extra electricity to use for cooking, offsetting our propane use.
Most people who move off grid just move onto propane, substituting propane for all their major heat loads, such as cooking and heating water. We already heat with wood cut sustainably from our property, so using the electric stove helps reduce our propane use as well.
The biggest drop in our propane consumption came when we installed our solar hot water system. It uses solar energy to heat water we use for washing and bathing, and should offset about 60 percent of water heating costs. For most people, this should be the first solar panel they put on their roof, because the payback is much faster than that of photovoltaics. There’s nothing nicer on a cold winter evening than soaking in a bath with water that was heated all day by the sun. After the system is paid for, there are no additional costs, and there are no carbon dioxide emissions created by the energy that heats the water. It’s an incredible, guilt-free luxury.
Many utilities now offer incentives to integrate renewable energy technologies, and with faster paybacks on your investment, you can take the savings from these systems and pay down debt. This was one of our keys to being able to move where we did. We scrimped, saved, and paid off our old mortgage before we left the city. Financial independence allows you to capitalize on the opportunities that will present themselves in the future.
Living off the grid is just one way of becoming independent, but even if you are connected, you can still make yourself more self-reliant. The final step on our path to independence was creating a vegetable garden. We have sandy soil, but discovered that the area around the old barn foundation had good topsoil. I started by turning over pieces of sod to create the garden, but eventually got smart and purchased rotten hay that I spread on the areas where I wanted to expand the garden. The hay killed the grass, and as it rotted, it added organic matter to the soil. After six to nine months with the hay on the soil, I could rototill the hay in and be ready to plant.
Most people have a sense that the money they spend on food continues to go up, and even though Americans only spend about 10 percent of their income on food (versus up to 90 percent in other parts of the world!), the percentage continues to rise.
We continue to increase the amount of space we devote to potatoes in our garden. The United Nations declared 2008 the “Year of the Potato” because potatoes provide exceptional nutrition and are a rugged plant that grows well in most places.
We have a neighbor who keeps us supplied with extra horse manure to supplement the garden, but there’s no reason you can’t do just as well in the city. Most municipalities now have pickup for grass clippings and leaves, which are a fantastic source of free organic material. You just need a wheelbarrow on the night before garbage day to retrieve some for composting.
Last year, after upgrading our electrical system, we added a new 10-cubic-foot freezer, which is a big step for someone living off the grid. Luckily our basement isn’t heated, so the freezer is in a very cool environment and doesn’t consume much electricity. Over the winter, when we’re making less electricity from the sun, the basement is so cool that the freezer rarely turns on.
As we’ve upgraded our system, we’ve moved more of our cooking requirements to our free homemade electricity. It started with an electric kettle and toaster. Then we added a convection toaster oven, and recently an induction burner, which uses significantly less electricity than a typical resistance electric burner. There’s something extremely liberating about cooking your food without a bill from a utility or a grocery store.
Peace of Mind
As I look to the future I see a more carbon-constrained world, especially as several billion people in China and India get off their bikes and into cars, so this year we purchased an electric bike. Its lithium-ion battery gets me into town and back on a single charge, without any pedaling. It helps us offset one of most country dwellers’ biggest carbon contributors: their personal transportation.
Learning to live off the grid has been a tremendously challenging experience. I would never pretend there haven’t been times of extreme frustration and anxiety. But getting over the speed bumps makes the times when things run smoothly all the more gratifying. On a cold winter night with a full moon, it’s wonderful to skate on the pond and look back at the house to see the light beaming from the windows, using electricity that was created during the day by the sun or by the wind. The house is warm, heated by wood cut from our property and burned in an EPA-certified woodstove that ensures minimal emissions. And there’s no feeling like pulling a wagon full of vegetables from the garden late in the summer, knowing that much of it will be stored in our root cellar or freezer and will keep our stomachs full all winter.
A few generations ago, this is how many Americans lived. Today, most of us have traded our independence to pay someone else to keep our homes warm, keep our lights, on and keep our stomachs full. I think this is becoming an increasingly unstable proposition.
The technology exists for us to reduce our impact on the planet, and at the same time make us more independent and resilient to the shocks coming our way — and you don’t have to live in the country to do it. Don’t wait. Pick up a shovel and get started on a garden. Pick up a phone and call a solar dealer. Pick up that stack of credit card bills and vow to pay them off and stay out of debt. The rewards are infinite. Peace of mind comes from independence.
Purchase Cam Mather’s book, Thriving During Challenging Times: The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.