One of the many challenges facing those who commit to low-impact living is how far they should compromise when it comes to the use of modern conveniences. We may reject the excesses of our consumerist society, but at the same time we aren’t about turning back the clock to a less-connected, less-aware age. How many transitionistas do you know who aren’t engaged in a close personal relationship with their laptops or smart phones?
At Grow Heathrow, we live without a TV, microwave or fridge, so going off-grid seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision to take. Being able to generate our own energy would allow us to meet our modest electrical needs without contributing to the problems associated with large scale centralised energy generation from nuclear or fossil fuels, and would future-proof us from rising energy costs.
We decided to install a relatively small solar system. This compromised four 190 Watt solar panels connected to four 120 Amp hour deep cycle batteries, with a charge controller and inverter to manage the inputs and outputs. Scouring the internet for good deals kept the price low, but without compromising on quality. If we’d decided to install a grid-tied system, the installation would have required a professional electrician, but because our system is entirely off-grid, our basic knowledge of electrics was enough to set the whole thing up ourselves, which meant we could avoid the kind of hefty installation costs you see on most domestic solar systems.
The technical challenges of solar power are, as we’ve been discovering, minor compared to the necessary adjustments in attitude and behaviour that anyone choosing to go off-grid will face. Since our panels went up, barely a day goes by without someone checking the weather report for the next few days. Because our supply of energy is dependant on the amount of sunlight hitting the solar cells, we are having to adapt our usage patterns. Sunny days mean we can crank up the volume on the stereo, get out our power tools, and keep the lights burning well into the early morning. But a string of grey overcast skies means having to ration our use to the barest of essentials – rapid bursts of internet usage and a solitary string of LED bulbs in the living space after sunset.
The days where power is in short supply are becoming more common as the days grow shorter. As a group, we’re having to make decisions about how to share the power out between us, which can sometimes be difficult. It’s interesting to see how visitors to the site react when they’re told that there isn’t enough power to charge up their ipod because Joe needs to finish writing his fortnightly blog for the Transition Network, but that’s all part of building resilience and learning to plan ahead.
Ideally, we wouldn’t be so reliant on a single source for our electrical needs. Diversification would reduce our exposure to energy droughts. Right now the wind is rattling the panes in the greenhouse around me, and my thoughts keep turning to the power that could be charging up our batteries with a small wind turbine spinning in the air above.
But our change in attitude isn’t just about the way our energy is generated, it’s also about the way it gets used. Out go the kettles, toasters and electric showers, and instead we burn wood to cook our food, heat our living spaces and provide us with hot water. Any electrical appliances we still use tend to be small and efficient. We still manage to keep ourselves clean, comfortable, well connected and well fed, and our voyages in off-grid living are only just beginning.