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Living Lightly Off the Grid

At home, climate change, energy

By David Macilwain, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

We still get those calls offering help with our electricity bill. “We get our power from the sun” I say – but then they offer a better feed-in tariff. “We’re not connected to the grid!” I say, and that’s usually it – though some answer “Oh really – that’s great, have a nice (sunny) day!”

Well I suppose it has been ‘great’ not getting a bill for thirty years, for electricity. We were never big TV watchers or electric gadget users, and if the sun didn’t shine for a week – as happens in winter – we managed OK with one light and the radio, in the early days when we only had a few solar panels and some old truck batteries.

But – we managed OK because we had a gas fridge, and a gas cooker, and a gas bill. And we had a solar hot water system, with a ‘chip heater’ as winter back-up. And we had a wood-burning heater, with a petrol and oil eating chainsaw to cut the wood and a diesel-burning ute to fetch it. Sometimes, just sometimes we used a generator, to charge flat batteries or for large power tools, and even once when a visiting guest needed to use a hair-dryer.

Nowadays things are much better, thanks to the Chinese dedication to producing cheaper photovoltaic panels, defying the market stranglehold that kept the price up for so long. Now we have a freezer running on our expanded 1.5 Kw system, along with satellite internet, kitchen gadgets and lights in every room, and of course a washing machine.

And we have a slow combustion stove that cooks, heats the water when the sun’s heat is insufficient, as well as heating our living room – our double-glazed, heavily insulated, ‘passive solar’ heated living room.

Now for what we don’t have. Simply put, that’s everything else that runs on electricity in ‘the modern’ – grid-connected – home. Electric blankets. Bathroom heaters. Tumble Dryers. Electric kettles, cookers and toasters. Electric stove tops and ovens. Walk-in fridges. Beer fridges. Air conditioning. Electric irons. Electric hot water back-up. Decorative lighting. 24 hour security lighting. TVs in every room…

But of course there’s one thing I left out that we can’t ‘live lightly’ without – expensive, non-renewable, dirty and heavy batteries. And there’s a lot more to say about them!