The joys and struggles of living off the grid
Categories: Life Stories, Energy
Power, one of the issues we face when going off the grid. Solar has become one of the main resource for this power. Just 2 per cent of Australians live off the grid—many by choice, some by necessity. Powering your life by the sun can be part of a minimalist lifestyle, but as one householder explains, it doesn't have to mean giving up your dishwasher.
In the last seven years there's been a surge in solar-powered living in Australia. More than 1.4 million households now have rooftop solar panels. However, despite Australia's surfeit of sunshine, the number of people living completely 'off the grid' lives without access to mains power is still relatively small: just 2 per cent of all electricity users.
Most are early adopters, hobbyists, or people who live in relatively remote areas and have few other options. However, as the costs of solar panels falls, and battery storage improves, their number is edging upwards.
One of Australia's earliest adopters of the off-grid lifestyle is cartoonist and writer Jill Redwood. She spoke to Life Matters from her home in East Gippsland, where she's lived without mains power since 1983. She says it all began in the 1970s when she decided city living wasn't for her.
'I don't know what you'd call my early venture away from the city, but I started travelling in a van, then rented a blacksmith's cottage in an isolated ghost town in Victoria for $50 a year. After that I lived in a teepee. Then I came back to the hills in far east Gippsland, living with a dirt floor, kerosene lamps and candles,' she says.
'I finally moved here and installed my first 30-watt solar panel. I didn't have to come in and fumble around for matches ... it was luxury because it wasn't a candle or a kero lamp, and you just had to walk in and flick a switch, and on a light came.'
Redwood now lives a largely self-sufficient life with a large garden, goats, and chickens, and around 60 animals. Her power comes from a solar array and inverter, and her water from a waterwheel on the river that pumps to a tank on the property.
Crucially, Redwood uses very little power. Most on-grid households use 25 to 30 kilowatt-hours of power a day, but she uses just 0.5kWh. She attributes this to her minimalist life: 'It comes down to no kids, no TV, no loads of one-day-old clothes to wash. I call it "enoughness".'
Redwood says even in the depths of winter she still has enough electricity to power her cottage.
'You don't make hay when the sun shines, you wash your clothes when the sun shines. I use wood for heating and wood for cooking. You just have to adapt to not having power on hand to waste any time of the day.'
She says although new panels are costly, she's done it much more cheaply than most: 'Just adding panels here and there using second-hand batteries, it's probably only cost me $2,000 all up.
'That's a lot of making do and recycling and inventing things. It's a bit of a patchwork affair but it works wonderfully.'
Someone who has leapt off the grid more recently is journalist Bronwyn Adcock, who wrote about her experience recently for Griffith Review. For her, simple geography meant there was little choice.
'My partner and I had a block of land where we wanted to build a house but it wasn't connected to the main grid,' she says.
'We were 1.5 kilometres away from the main power lines. The cost to connect to the main lines would've been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
'There were some other people we knew around the area who were doing it. We weren't chasing an alternative lifestyle—we wanted a modern, functioning house.'
Key to the creation of the system was a man she calls Warren the solar whisperer, who set up the house and sourced its panels.
'Warren was informed that we wanted all the lights to work, we wanted to have a dishwasher, a fridge and a computer,' Adcock says.
'We bought really energy efficient appliances. The way our house works is that we have all these appliances like the fridge that need to work 24/7, but the bigger appliances only to run when there is sun hitting the panels—that's the dishwasher and the washing machine.'
She admits to having some doubts early on, and remembers one guest reacting with surprise when she realised the house was off-grid.
'I had someone I didn't know very well come for dinner and she tried to turn on the dishwasher,' Adcock says.
'I had to say: "No, you can't do that, we have to wait for the sun." Moments like that it does make you think, have I become accustomed to this kind of inconvenience?'
Overall, Adcock says, it is about living within your means—and adapting to circumstance, even if it's raining and the washing baskets are full.
'I work from home most of the time with a computer,' she says.
'We've adapted to things like not needing a dryer. I've used a hairdryer once in seven years. I don't iron. Anything that has a heating element is bad news for solar. Rather than use them, I found it easier to make the decision that I wouldn't use a hairdryer and I don't iron.'
In addition, she's become a keen observer of the sun.
'Prior to going off the grid I didn't realise that the sun moves every single day into a completely different position,' she says.
'We get fantastic winter sun. It is something I've become a little obsessed with over the years, the position of the sun and where it is, because it affects when you are going to do things.'