Off-Grid Thoughts

This serves as a second instalment for our off-grid article in The Owner Builder 209 (October 2018). I might put the jpgs of this article in here next time I’m at the desktop computer…

Glossary of acronyms:
FFs = fossil fuels
BAU = business as usual

We’re in rural Western Australia and live off-grid on solar panels. We had many reasons to go off-grid, including independence from a grid owned by corrupt organisations, who have no interest in curtailing their activities, and also because the electricity grid here is largely based on burning coal and much of its infrastructure caters to the biggest users (industry & high-using wasteful households), who the smaller users subsidise by subscribing to it. We did not wish to support the electricity grid with our custom anymore and when we “tree-changed” we leapt at the opportunity to go off-grid.

At the time (2013) we saw the renewable energy industry as a “better” industry than the FF industry. We were able to buy our system from a small locally-owned company, and you never deal with “small guys” if you’re on the grid. But what we didn’t see clearly behind that layer was that the manufacturing of solar panels, batteries, electronics is “big business” like coal, and involves incredibly destructive mining and manufacturing processes (and the usual fossil fuel inputs for those processes – that part we were very aware of – but e.g. to manufacture a rooftop solar hot water heater was at least FFs spent on something that would last us a lifetime and not burn any FFs to heat water).

I have long been very fond of Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful philosophy – that was one of the handful of useful books I was introduced to on the periphery of an otherwise, disappointingly, largely greenwash/BAU Environmental Science degree I commenced as a 16-year-old who wanted to help save the world, as idealistic teenagers are wont to do (but that’s another story). When solar technology began I thought that the place for it was exactly within that kind of philosophy – as small systems on people’s rooftops, and people learning to live within the limitations of those small systems. I was totally gobsmacked to discover the plans big industry had for solar panels and wind power – which was to build industrial-scale habitat-destroying execrations all over the face of the earth, as they are indeed now doing. This is on top of the ecological and human cost of manufacturing such technologies in the first place, which happened so far away from me that it took me a while to properly see. And the icing on the cake of that was reading Bright Green Lies recently, and seeing footage of the places of mining and manufacture for these technologies.

Even when we bought our off-grid system, and had worked out how save even more electricity so we could have a really small system, the majority of people quoting were trying to sell us larger systems and saying, “You can’t live with that little electricity.” But we can, and the thing is, even though we use less than a quarter of the average Australian household, the system capacity was still greater than what our grandparents would have used back in the day.

In part that’s because we’re trying to produce as much of our own food as possible and freezers are a huge advantage when you’re novices starting out on that journey. Also we run a fridge, low-lumen lighting, computers, a twin-tub washing machine (far less power draw, and super reduction in water and detergent use because it’s sequential through the same solution), a vacuum cleaner, plus food processor and other small-draw kitchen appliances, and fans in summer. And while we’ve avoided the big-draw items like space heating (largely through designing our earthship type house properly), we’re still living in huge luxury with what we have, compared to our grandparents and actually the majority of people alive in this world.

We’re conscious of this, despite the fact that if everyone did what we did, household electricity consumption in Australia would drop by ¾. That’s a big figure, but many people aren’t starting from scratch like we did, and have much of their energy consumption imposed on them by poor building design and existing household infrastructure – and even at ¼ of the consumption it’s still too much, so we have come to see our off-grid life as an exercise in weaning ourselves off electricity in the long run – we have no intentions of replacing panels or batteries and intend to just live with decreasing capacity (which so far hasn’t significantly happened).

It’s incredible how much we’ve come to depend on things that people mostly didn’t even have a century ago – electricity and motorised transport.

By the way, if all of Australia dropped magically and permanently to just 25% of current household electricity use tomorrow, they’d just cram in more people to sell their electricity to…which is how this always goes. We’ve not had children, but are immigrants (me, as a child) and children of immigrants (my husband) and therefore, by being part of this system, even unwillingly, are co-responsible for the environmental destruction of providing housing, agriculture and consumer goods for us – the large-scale bulldozing of native ecosystems off the face of the earth, the clearcutting, the mining, etc etc done to accommodate extra population in Australia.

We can individually do much to reduce our consumption and support better alternatives (i.e. lesser evils), but while the system we’re in continues, this is just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

An octogenarian friend who died last year grew up in the area we now live – without electricity, without a car, back in the day…and it seems to me we need to voluntarily learn how to wean ourselves off these things, and in part that’s not going to be possible unless we form alternative mutually supporting communities, both online to do what we do, but even more necessarily, on the ground.

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