The drive for self-reliance has a long and varied history, and these days going off-grid doesn’t have to mean going without.
with energy prices continuing to rise, mounting ethical concerns about over-consumption and its associated environmental impact, and the looming shadow of climate change growing ever larger and darker, the appeal of ‘off-grid’ living is growing exponentially. According to a study carried out by the Office of Fair Trading last year, an estimated 3.6 million homes in the UK are already operating independently from the mains gas grid though unplugging completely may still be a step too far for most people.The drive for greater self-reliance has a long and varied history. As far back as 1850, some 30 years before Godalming, Surrey, become home to the world’s first electrically illuminated public walkway, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau was extoling the virtues of simplifying life and going back to the land. His book ‘Walden; or, Life in the Woods’ has long been revered as a key text for the self-sufficiency movement and is still read widely today. In the century and a half since Thoreau made his home at Walden Pond, everyone from tree-hugging environmentalists to free-thinking individualists sick of interference from ‘the man’ has pined to swap pylons for photovoltaics. In recent years, technology has caught up with ideology making off-grid living not only possible but, in some cases, practical.
As energy analyst and consultant Chris Nelder said in an article in Smart Planet in 2011: “The technology exists to allow individual towns or regions to become largely, if not completely, self-sufficient in energy. It’s mostly off-the-shelf stuff, and much of it has been around for decades. The only missing elements are the leadership to do it, and the capital.”
In North America those areas attempting to become energy self-sufficient are known as Net Zero Energy Districts. This is the particular aim of one district of Fort Collins with 7,200 individual and business utility customers, including the main campus of Colorado State University. As with all of these projects, the concern has been as much with reducing consumption by educating people to use less at peak times and ensuring that houses and businesses are well insulated, as with increasing local power generation with solar panels, wind power and other renewable sources.
In Japan these areas have become known as Sustainable Energy Zones, where the supply rate is more than 100 per cent. All energy requirements can be met by renewable energy created within a given area through the use of photovoltaic, wind, geothermal, biomass, and small-scale hydro.
In 2009 Yanaizu Town, with a population of 4,434, topped the list of Japan’s most self-sufficient towns by producing 3,290 per cent of its energy requirements mainly with the use of geothermal power. Because of volcanic activity geothermal is widely used in Japan, though small-scale hydroelectric plants are also becoming common.
Finally, Feldheim in Germany, a village with a population of 150, became the first community to build its own energy grid in October 2010. The village gets all its electricity and heating locally from 43 wind turbines and a biogas factory fuelled by a slurry of unused corn and pig manure with a backup heat-source of a furnace burning wood chips from locally felled trees.
David and Carina Coomber, who live 6km from the small community of Långelse in Sweden, have built their conventional-looking house with the intention of making themselves entirely self-sufficient with minimum consumption.
The Coombers use highly efficient insulation and reuse any heat produced, as well as geothermal and solar power. But it is not their intention to isolate themselves from the community. “If we all become partially self-sufficient, we can share the resources,” says David, “and if you have surplus energy you can help out other communities with fewer resources. There is the possibility of small streams using hydro-electric instead of the large-scale destructive ones. With these, wind turbines, solar and geothermal power, you can get away from the big actors - large power companies - and the small actors may be able to feed the whole country, avoiding the danger of large-scale blackouts.”
Of course, neither the Coombers’s house nor Feldheim can be models for every house or community, but the German village has been drawing in visitors from all over the world. In 2011 alone more than 3,000 visitors from North and South Korea, South America, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Australia and Japan flocked there because, although small, the community supplies ideas and inspiration.
As Nelder says, it is wrong to wait for central government action, which may take years. “We can simply assume responsibility for ourselves, voluntarily as individuals and take matters into our own hands. Everything we need is off-the-shelf and ready to deploy now,” he says.
For the Coombers, like many of those committed to self-sufficiency worldwide, idealism is the backbone of their project. David Coomber believes it is more than merely the devolution of electric power. “By people or communities becoming responsible for producing their own energy, with the consequent incentive to use as little as possible, it may eventually devolve power in many other ways,” he says. *