Livin’ the Dream, Off the Grid and Thriving

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather
1 / 4
2 / 4
3 / 4
4 / 4

Twenty years ago my wife Michelle and I had a dream to get out of the city and move to the country. We wanted to live more sustainably and have space around us. Almost 14 years ago we found our little piece of paradise on 150 acres in Eastern Ontario. The nearest utility pole is 3 miles to the east and 4 miles to the west and we power the house entirely with the sun and wind. It truly is a dream come true.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been some very trying moments. When we moved “off-grid” there were very few good sources of information. There were no books, Home Power Magazine was still in its infancy, Mother Earth News articles lacked details because the technology was new, and local trades people weren’t that anxious to help. So we had to put into practice the lifelong learning  philosophy that we had developed while home schooling our daughters. If you’re motivated to learn something you can and you will. We met some knowledgeable people along the way who were great sources of information. We asked a lot of questions.

About a decade ago I met a fellow off-gridder named William “Bill” Kemp when I went to pick up some used batteries from him. We became good friends and when I started publishing a renewable energy magazine Bill wrote an off-grid primer for it. He enjoyed writing so much he suggested that in the next issue he could write on solar panels, and then wind turbines and the next thing you know I had convinced him to write a book. The Renewable Energy Handbook continues to help people to make the transition to off-grid living easier because Bill Kemp is one of the those rare engineers who is able to describe even very technical issues in an easy to digest, logical way. Now that so many utilities are paying for green power from homes it doesn’t make much sense to go off-grid these days. You are better to sell your excess power to the grid and use the grid as your large battery bank, hopefully depositing your green electricity during peak hours when the sun is out and electricity rates are highest, then drawing it back out later when rates are lower. You should have a small battery bank to use yourself in the event of power outages, but unless you are a long distance from the grid, you should be plugged in.

Over the years we have constantly upgraded our system and we are just about where we want to be. We have installed a new Bergey 1 kW wind turbine and have 2.3 kWs of photovoltaic panels. While many people choose to invest any of their excess income into 401Ks and retirement plans, we’ve put ours into solar panels. My research into peak oil has convinced me that our days of cheap oil are over and that with 9 million people buying a car every year the competition for what’s left is going to be intense. In fact I can see shortages looming and most off-gridders who want to live a typical North American lifestyle will still find periods where there is not enough sun and wind and they’ll require a fossil fuel powered back up generator.

In our latest upgrade, from 12 Volts to 24 Volts, we also added more solar panels and put up the new wind turbine. During the previous fall we had to run our gas generator about 15 times when our batteries got low, but after the upgrade we ran it just twice, and then went 10 months before running it again. This gives you a fantastic feeling of independence. We heat with wood we cut from our woodlot, and produce all our own electricity, for free (now that the equipment’s paid for)! There are no power outages at our house, ever.

One thing that you will find with most people who move off-grid is that they shift their major energy loads, “thermal” or “heat” loads, to propane. Propane is a liquid hydrocarbon like natural gas that is delivered by truck to a rural home. When you burn it you release the carbon dioxide that it had sequestered when it was in the ground. Many people move off-grid for environmental reasons but unfortunately they end  up defeating the purpose by using a lot of propane.

We are in the process of weaning ourselves from propane. With our extra solar panels we are doing an increasing amount of our cooking with electricity. We use an electric kettle, electric toaster, electric convection toaster oven and induction stovetop for more than half of our cooking now. We also installed a solar domestic hot water heater (SDHW) which produces almost 60% of our hot water. Some of the rest is heated with excess electricity that powers a hot water tank, and we also heat some of our hot water on our woodstove during cool seasons. In the latest edition of The Renewable Energy Handbook Bill Kemp explains how he has taken his house off of propane completely. He sold his propane cook stove and installed a wood cook stove, and ran a loop from his hot water tank through both his cook stove and woodstove, so none of his hot water comes from propane anymore.

What Bill has done is to make his house “zero-carbon”. He doesn’t contribute any additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere while powering his home. Yes, his firewood does release carbon, but only what it has absorbed and sequestered as it was growing. So it’s “carbon neutral.” I’m not there yet but I’m working towards it. And every step I take is extremely gratifying. Michelle is pretty sick of hearing me call everything “solar powered”. But whether it’s solar powered toast, or solar powered pizza, if I’ve used electricity generated by solar panels, it is indeed “solar powered.” We even purchased an electric bike which gets us to town and back on its lithium-ion battery. When I get home I charge it up just by plugging it into the wall. Which makes it… you guessed it, a solar powered bike! And it’s awesome. The feeling of driving to town on a bike charged by the sun is an absolute blast.

We started on our off-grid odyssey because of our concern for our footprint on the planet, but our motivation has changed as we look at how the challenges of peak oil and the economic crisis that are converging with climate change. I really believe that now is the time to make yourself more independent and with that in mind I wrote “Thriving During Challenging Times, The Energy, Food and Financial Independence Handbook.” It looks at every aspect of your life and provides a roadmap on how to deal with the changes that are happening in our world, and how to make yourself more resilient to the shocks our systems are experiencing.

It can seem like a scary time, but less so at my house. Regardless of what’s happening on world oil markets or in the Gulf of Mexico, my house stays warm, the lights stay on, the fridge and freezer keep running and the pump keeps water coming out of my taps. The root cellar is full of vegetables for the winter and the pantry has 6 months worth of food.

In my blog I share my experiences of living off-grid and some of the ideas I think that everyone can incorporate into their lives to make themselves more shock resistant. And best of all, I share the absolute joy that comes with this independence. It is something our grandparents had but something we have lost, or traded away for our incomes. There’s never been a better time to get it back. I hope you’ll stay tuned and let me help motivate you in that direction.