Choose Self-Sufficient Living Through Household Energy Independence

John Gulland and Wendy Milne power their home almost entirely with renewable energy. Here are the details of what they learned on their journey to self-sufficient living and energy independence.

| April/May 2008

Renewable Energy

Although people often talk about being more “self-reliant” and achieving “energy independence,” Wendy Milne says her experience with renewable energy has been that it becomes a community effort, with friends and family eager to learn more about these sustainable technologies.

Photo by Wendy Milne

We began our journey toward self-sufficient living and household energy independence about eight years ago. We now rely almost exclusively on wood, wind and solar energy to power and heat our home, offices and workshop. We still have grid electricity available at the flip of a switch, but we avoid using it unless we have to. This is a report from the front lines of our transition to renewable energy. Over the last eight years we’ve spent a lot of money and made some big mistakes. On the other hand, we’ve found that the challenges offer great learning opportunities, and the journey to self-sufficient living is endlessly engaging and deeply rewarding.

John: We embarked on this project with a few advantages. First, our house sits on 100 acres of bush (to call it a “forest” would overstate its quality) in rural Ontario, Canada, where there are no zoning or code restrictions on the use of renewable energy systems. Second, I’ve been in the renewable energy business for almost 30 years through my involvement with wood heating, and Wendy has done some of her academic research on renewable energy. We were both committed to the project from the start, which made it easier to get through the rough patches. Third, we started with no expectations of achieving a significant return on our investment, so we’ve treated the effort as a combination hobby and research project.

Wendy: A number of things converged in the fall and winter of 1997 to 1998 to shape not only my research on renewable energy but our own household conversion. After two decades working in public education, community development and women’s organizations, in the fall of 1997 I began to pursue a doctorate in the field of sustainable rural communities. I was interested in studying women’s participation in sustainability, and energy piqued my interest as a possible research focus. Then the ice storm of January 1998 struck the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. We were just on the edge of the most seriously damaged areas, but we were without electricity for four days, the roads were impassable, and after two days we were without telephone service when the utility’s battery backup system failed. It seemed like a signal that the time was right to immerse ourselves in renewable energy.

John: Although I had followed energy issues for a long time, concentrating on home energy these last few years has deepened my understanding. One insight I’ve gained is that the household, as a site of the production and consumption of energy, can be viewed as a microcosm of the global energy dilemma. That is, the energy problem is not a simple one to solve at either the household or global level, and it will take effort and creativity to do so.

Energy doesn’t come easily these days. A few decades ago, huge new oil fields were being discovered all over the world. In the past, oil companies could get 100 barrels of oil to sell by investing one barrel of oil in production costs. Today, the return on energy invested is closer to 10-to-1. We’re convinced that replacing oil and gas with other energy options as their reserves deplete will not be easy or cheap.

Our experience is that energy doesn’t come easily at home either. We have found the journey to household energy self-sufficiency challenging in many ways. These challenges often aren’t reflected in the upbeat articles on achieving self-sufficient living and the seductive ads for solar panels and wind turbines.

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