Off the grid

SUSIE Aulich and Gordon Cuff have just added a boutique garden room to their vertical board Cubist home on the slopes of Mt Arthur.

Made from salvaged shower doors and house windows, it is designed to take the surplus power they generate so they can grow vegies. It’s so pleasant to spend time there they’ve added a couch and a swing.

You’d never know they run their life and business off grid – without poles, wires, power bills or the quarterly visit from a meter reader – safe in the knowledge they’ll never run out of power.

“You think you’re depriving yourself of power [by] going off grid, or of the necessities of life,” Cuff says, “but actually we have excess.”

With so much water coming down the nearby creek, he marvels that they generate enough hydropower to have an 1800W heater on – permanently.

Their system was built 30 years ago by two trailblazers on adjoining properties who refused to accept the cost of getting power. They were quoted $30,000 to have power connected and needed to guarantee power usage of $1000 a year each.

“They were futurists,” Aulich says. “You had to use your brain to take control of your power in those days. Now it’s mainstream, and it’s going to become even more so. People are really getting that they can have control and it’s better for the planet.”

For an increasing number of people, the urge to get away from it all is no longer about two weeks in Sri Lanka.

“You can live like we do, run a business and not want for anything.”

Thanks to increased stress and the dearth of privacy in a politically chaotic world beset by extreme weather events – not to mention rapid advancement in sustainable energy technologies – living off grid has evolved to hold a similar appeal to going on permanent holiday. And it’s cheaper, too.

The pioneering Lorinna community of about 100 people has known this for decades. Generations have lived in an off-grid community in the Forth Valley in the Central Highlands, relying on solar, micro-hydro and timber as energy sources.

They get around on retrofitted electric quad bikes and golf buggies, grow up to 70 different crops, and produce heirloom seedlings and potting mixes, isolated from the influence of conventional agriculture.

Theirs is a viable community demonstrating alternative ways of living with climate change, epitomised by Wouter Sels and Elyse Acacia from Seven Springs Farm.

At the end of one of Tasmania’s wettest winters, with much of their hydro power washed away by floods, they still managed to get to Launceston’s Harvest Market with freshly bunched organic greens.

The lifestyle they have carved out dates to the 1970s – one of total self-reliance based on permaculture principles, strong work ethic and community supported agriculture.

But the picture is very different in 2017. These days, people who are choosing to live without poles and wires are engaging professional sustainable architects and solar-energy consultants who can access and monitor their clients’ system remotely.

The dedicated off-gridders even have their own magazines – ReNew and Sanctuary, featuring cover stories on high-comfort, low-bill homes. Increasingly, they are refugees from stressful lives interstate looking to slow down and live a more mindful existence with acreage.

“It’s a conscious decision for some people,” says Brett Carter, a long-time solar-energy consultant who has lived off grid in a self-built home at Nicholls Rivulet with his wife Annabelle and three sons for two decades.

“Ours was monetary at first. No bills for 20 years is a big reason. But a lot of people are moving down cashed up from Melbourne or Sydney, investing in a block, spending $30,000 on a road, building an architect-designed house and, because they want to build it, don’t worry spending $40,000 to $50,000 on a system.”

Carter recalls when the price of solar panels was $10 a watt and they had to import a special twin compressor fridge from Scandinavia.

Now, he says, the price is 50c a watt and you can walk into Harvey Norman and buy a compatible fridge off the shelf. Through his work, he sees first-hand the influx of self-funded retirees investing in a block of land off grid.

“The community around here was established by people wanting to escape the world,” Carter says. “Now the world is coming to us because they want our lifestyle.”

Those people Carter speaks of include Kate and John Reed, owners of Southern Swan pharmacy at Cygnet.

Eight years ago, they bought an investment block overlooking the Huon River with an eye on retirement and growing forest edibles.

But things moved quicker than expected when the contrast of the peace of Tasmania and their stressful lives in Sydney became more apparent.

They first transitioned their Sydney-based homeopathic pharmacy to Cygnet in 2011, living on the premises before their custom-built passive solar-designed home was completed in January.

“In Sydney, you’re so busy just living you think, ‘This is it; this is what my life is’. It’s hard to imagine doing something different,” Sydney-born Kate says. “Now we wonder how we lived in that environment for so long.”

The cost of setting up a power source to their house site was so expensive they decided to invest about $40,000 in an offgrid system.

Kate says they settled on a new build “because as much as the quaint little farmhouses look beautiful, you want to be facing north in a soundly built house that’s warm in winter – there’s not a lot of choice when it comes down to it”.

The Reeds commissioned local architect Paul Gibson, who was recommended to them by their neighbours, conservationist Bob Brown and his partner Paul Thomas. Their home has been determined by a design aesthetic based on a tight footprint and an acute awareness of their 13-year-old son’s future.

“When the computer age drops out, all the skills we learnt from the internet will be lost,” Kate says.

So inside their home, Paul designed a Trombe-walled library for the thousands of books John has collected and which Thomas will inherit.

After less than a year living off grid, they are amazed at how seamless the transition has been.

“We work five days a week and don’t get home until late,” Kate says. “We wanted to get home and turn on the lights and not have to think about it or worry about how much power we had.”

From Pennant Hills to Cygnet, the Reeds now enjoy total privacy on 60ha and live near people looking for similar things out of life.

Kate sees how it is opening up new possibilities, too. Her sister and partner have just bought a place nearby at Gardeners Bay, after selling their olive grove on French Island in Victoria.

While off grid can be a design aesthetic for the urban escapees who can afford to invest in the set-up costs, energy specialists are waiting to see what happens once prices fall.

Small communities, such as the Tasman Ecovillage at Nubeena – set up on permaculture and co-housing principles – are poised for costs to fall further before they can afford to go fully off grid.

The principle of self-reliance is motivating for both small communities and families.

“We don’t impact on society in terms of our needs and wants and we’ve learnt to rely on ourselves more,” Annabelle Carter says.

“I’d like to see it as a growth industry in terms of what people can do and understand about the way they live, not just run by businesses rushing in quickly to make a dollar.”

It’s an attractive thought – that you can have more than the power you need without paying for it.

And that you can be your own customer, too, releasing yourself from the vagaries of power outages and the quarterly bill.

Hydro Tasmania’s Off Grid Solutions continues to conduct research, recently holding an internet technology forum on isolated power systems at Flinders Island.

Solar, wind and diesel energy generation for local communities not connected to the grid went on show in Whitemark to international visitors from a dozen countries.

Given the mainstream transition and shift in consumer awareness, it is surprising no one seems to know exactly how many people are living outside electricity infrastructure.

Solar consultant Alan Barns says this is partly because people who live off grid are “hard to get next to – if not hermits, then bordering on it”.

He says many of his customers “don’t want to be interrupted, they don’t want service people coming to visit and reading meters, and they don’t want people to know where they live”.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, Barns is seeing a rise in tourism and eco-accommodation businesses that use the fact they are off grid as part of their appeal.

He was recently contracted to help install an off-grid system at former V8s driver Marcos Ambrose’s Thousand Lakes Lodge in the Central Highlands, and another, a new eco-accommodation retreat at St Marys.

In the space of a decade, the vision Aulich and Cuff shared for their Mt Arthur property has grown with their love for it.

They’ve established a flower farm and now run two eco-friendly, self-contained accommodation businesses on the property – The Trig and the Container.

Guests are encouraged to visit to experience living off grid, and are welcomed with beds warmed by 25W electric blankets. In the guests’ book, one visitor wrote: “This is the first place on our trip where we just stopped and drew breath. We didn’t leave The Trig for three days.”

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, their personal energy “guru” James Patterson, from Going Off Grid, can plug into their system remotely any time to troubleshoot – although Cuff shares most of the day-to-day maintenance with their neighbour.

“When the power drops it means something’s blocked, or there’s a tree over the creek,” he says. “I’ll go down in the dark with a head torch in all sorts of weather to clean it out. I love the fact that you get your hands dirty and you reap the rewards of being connected to where our power comes from.”

Adds Aulich: “Australia is one of the biggest polluters in the world. That we are even still discussing coal-fired power stations when people can be totally self-sufficient is crazy. I don’t see it as the future anymore. It’s the now. This system has been going for 30 years. People need to get it. You can live like we do, run a business and not want for anything.”

Dr Heather Lovell, associate professor at UTAS school of social sciences, is undertaking a four-year project funded by the Australian Research Council, looking at changes in electricity provision and consumption.

As part of her research, she spent a month trying to establish how many Australians lived off the grid, but succeeded only in coming up with a frustrating range of estimates of “somewhere between 200 and 10,000”.

“Our conclusion was that no one has a clue,” Lovell says, citing the CSIRO, the Census and solar installers.

“The kind of organisations you’d think would have figures simply don’t know. In the sense of it being a new trend, it’s an oversight that we’re not yet capturing data – and we should be. It’s a really important and rapidly changing picture.”

It’s also one as varied as people, with every system unique to its place. Some even talk of power systems having their own terroir, just like wine.

At Bridgenorth, on the West Tamar, it’s a school day in the Barns household. Home is a temporary transportable dwelling while they build their permanent home farther up the hill on 40ha.

His wife Sally takes Ellie, 4, and Jack, 3, to school while Alan puts a second load of clothes in the dryer and empties the dishwasher before starting work running their off-grid solarenergy company Eversun Solar. They’ve used their home as a test bed for people to visit and view how they live.

Before kids, while travelling around Australia, the couple realised how little they really needed to live. So they sold up the traditional farm and decided to become as self-sustaining as possible on an off-grid block.

“It was financially driven for us initially,” Barns says. “But we’ve since realised we can do so much more. At the moment, we’re trying to think of things to do with our extra power in summer.”

Last summer they bought an old 1000-litre hot tub, filled it with free water, heated it with free power and sat out under the night sky star-gazing.

“I just get excited when people go off grid,” Barns says. “It’s such a great lifestyle. Friends thought we’d huddle around a candle and that would be our heating and light source – you can do that if you want. Or you can have a house like this and not want for anything. The only difference is the kids might see their dad run out after it rains to wash the solar panels.”

Barns feels deeply comforted by the thought his family could sustain its own power needs.

“Going off grid, you can build in a location you’ve always wanted and live a lifestyle of your dreams, based on what your budget allows, and not be limited by the infrastructure of where the wires run,” he says.

“We can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Published in TasWeekend, Jan 21, 2017

 

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