Taking the first Steps to Off Grid Living

(This piece first appeared in The Herald on 24 March 2015)
Load shedding makes us all angry. We are frustrated with Eskom. We are disillusioned with the slow progress with the building of new power stations. We are suspicious of dodgy deals with the Russians to build nuclear reactors. Many of us are investing emotion and passion in this negativity, but my family and I are rather investing my energy in doing what we can to move away from the gird in whatever small steps we can. I am speaking about this because I see that much of the discussion about “off grid living” generally comes from one of two extreme positions. Firstly there’s the guy that is living in his 1974 Volkswagen camper, who powers his whole existence from a wind turbine he built by re-wiring an old desk fan he found by the roadside. He doesn’t need to cook; because he eats all his food raw and he avoids hot water because “everybody knows” that washing is part of a grand Illuminati conspiracy. The second extreme position is that of the billionaire in Houghton who builds a state of the art solar panel system bigger than my house. It tracks the movements of the sun by means of clever engineering and software developed by the SKA project. The power is stored in batteries just like the ones on the Mars rover. The whole system does cost about the same as a cabinet minister’s annual salary, but comfortably runs his air conditioning, 90 inch TV’s, heated pools and a mini ice rink.
DIY Solar Panel installation December 2014

Caught between these two extremes, most of us simply give up and rather focus on wording clever status updates that ridicule Eskom executives. But I am here to tell you that there is hope. There is real and immediate action that you and I can take toward moving off grid.

You see, I have just recently installed an off grid power and water system at our little farm just outside Port Elizabeth, and you know what? It didn’t cost me an arm and a leg. In fact it cost me round about the same as what it would have cost me to get water and electricity brought to the farm by the municipality. Hear what I am saying! The cost of installing a system that will generate free solar electricity and clean running water in perpetuity is the same as what the grid would have charged me just for the privilege of being connected to them and being billed by them with ever increasing rates regardless of the reliability of their supply. Of course there will be some on-going costs, but there won’t be load shedding, there won’t be the mindless standing in queues at the “customer care” centre, there won’t be the lying awake at night with the guilt of knowing that I am pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every time I switch on the lights.
You may not think that my situation on the farm is relevant to everyone reading this, but what I want to tell you, is that solar panels and rainwater tanks are only part of the story. There are two important aspects to consider.
Firstly, we must re-think what it is that we have become dependent on the grid for, remembering of course that the idea of a “gird” dealing with our electricity, water supply, sewerage disposal, telephone and internet is all reasonably recent. There is no reason we can’t step away gradually from the grid, in the same way as we slipped slowly into the habit of becoming dependent on it. Do we need to use so much? Do we need the air-conditioning? Do we need the heater? Do we need the ninety Inch TV? Do we need the welder in the garage or the toaster in the kitchen? Do we need to plant our garden full of plants that have beautiful flowers but that will die without the quantities of water they evolved to become accustomed to in the swamps of the Amazon? There are thousands of actions we can take today to consume less energy and water and to produce less waste.
Secondly, after we have taken the obvious step of consuming less, we must do what we can to diversify our consumption and waste. What I am saying is, it may cost the same to cook on gas, but it is unlikely that the gas supply will run out at the same time as the electricity supply grid. What about rain water? You may not have enough storage to make you independent of the municipal system, but you may have enough to be able to use the municipal system as a backup and not a primary supply. Even just to irrigate your garden would be a step in the right direction. Cooking and heating with firewood is not a bad idea, in fact it’s fun and romantic. What about processing some of your waste in a compost heap, grey water system or septic tank? What about heating your house with sunlight and cooling it with wind?
What I am talking about is migrating off grid in small steps. First by consuming less, then by transitioning into a hybrid situation, where each time the grid goes down it is less  and less of a disaster to you and your family.
There are things we can do. We are not helpless and doing these things makes us feel a lot better than when we are bitching about Eskom. Don’t you think?

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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