Could you live off the grid?
Image credit: ASHLEY COOPER/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Living entirely off-grid seems like a pipe dream for most – but some households have shown it isn’t as challenging as you’d think... granted, you have to have some spare cash lying around.
Thick mud, dark days and dodgy showers haven’t dented the allure of living off the grid for Rachael and her young family. Today’s soaring energy costs and wider price rises make the idea of self-sufficiency even more appealing for a growing number of ‘off-gridders’ – people who choose to live without connection to the national grid and other utilities, and without the bills.
Rachael and her husband Fraser grow their own food, keep bees, and harvest solar energy to keep their home running. Her children – both under two – have 4.5 acres of woodland to play in, and feast on homegrown greengages, blackberries and sweet chestnuts. Two dogs add extra security to their fenced-in plot – if it’s gloomy in the winter, summer days on their wooded South Lincolnshire land are glorious.
“A day of rain to fill the tanks, followed by a day of full sun to top up the batteries, is the best weather ever,” says Rachael. Sunshine feeds the array of solar panels on a barn built by Fraser, and they harvest and purify rainwater, which they consume with care.
Five years ago, Rachael and Fraser took the plunge to move off-grid and onto a plot that Fraser had bought more than a decade earlier. Once a bleak and barren piece of land, he planned to use it as a base for his tree surgery business. Rachael had moved up from Cambridge, but they couldn’t afford to renovate their bungalow. “We felt trapped – we had lots we wanted to do but couldn’t afford it,” she says. “We didn’t want to be stuck with a mortgage for 30 years. We wanted to give our children a life close to nature that had freedom and we felt this was the best route.”
There’s often sniping from viewers of their YouTube channel ‘The Off Grid Family’ – they live with most mod cons after all, not least a tumble dryer, the internet, hot water and flushing toilets. They monitor everything from security through to their energy usage via their mobiles, and they still do a weekly food shop – the nearest town is half an hour away.
“People have this assumption that off-grid living has to be nomadic and simple,” says Rachael. “We don’t see it as a step backwards – instead, this is what the future could look like. If you understand your own water, power and food, you can take responsibility for your own consumption. And that gives you a real sense of achievement.”
Interest in their lifestyle is soaring, and entrepreneurs in renewable energy say they’re fielding a growing number of enquiries about becoming energy self-sufficient. Dozens of social media groups are devoted to off-grid living, most of them US based, where hazards might include marauding bears, extreme weather, and misbehaving composting toilets. While Rachael faces down the odd hairy spider, the claggy Lincolnshire mud is her greatest enemy. “When we started this, we turned to YouTube to see examples of how it might look, and the vast majority were in America or Canada... we thought that was a shame – we feel really strongly about living this way.”
An estimated 150,000 people live off grid in the UK, according to community website Off-Grid.net, but most who do opt to live out of campervans, house boats, converted buses, tents and yurts. Some 25,000 are thought to live in traditional but energy-self-sufficient homes – in some cases well-heeled professionals who’ve built a dream property too remote or expensive to link up to the national grid. Many off-gridders are to be found in Wales, where the government’s One Planet Development scheme allows people to build homes on farmland beyond normal planning areas, provided they meet certain criteria. Rachael and Fraser still live in a static caravan, and plan eventually to build their own home, but are cagey about planning regulations.
Then there are self-sufficient groups such as that to be found on the Scottish island of Eigg – the first community in the world to launch its own off-grid system fed by solar, wind and hydro energy – all of which is channelled into a high-voltage underground local grid. There residents are fined if they use too much energy at once and think twice about switching on the kettle while the washing machine is running. Even Eigg runs on 90-95 per cent renewables, backed-up by generators when the weather doesn’t meet islanders’ needs.
An expensive-to-run generator powered Rachael and Fraser’s living when they first moved in – at the time they had no heating or running water, not even a flushing toilet; temperatures dropped that February to -10°C, Rachael remembers. “It was rough – but as spring came, we started to get things in place.” They’ve gone on to have two children, install solar power and rig a sizeable water storage and filtration system, powered by a pump.
Fraser is a tree surgeon and Rachael a primary school teacher – but they’re now solar energy experts, builders, beekeepers, plumbers, jam makers and fruit growers. Fraser has planted oak, ash, hornbeam and beech, silver birch and medlar alongside other fruit and native trees. He’s also improved the soil over the years with mulch and wood chippings, and planted hedgerows now thick with wildlife. And in a gruelling few days, he’s built a fence to keep out the hungry rabbits that threaten to munch their lettuce and carrots.
Last year, the couple installed their own solar energy system, comprising 20 solar panels, adaptors to regulate the flow of energy and a control panel to help monitor energy generation, usage and storage. Seven lithium-ion batteries store excess power and back up during night and dull winter days. On a good day, they’ll generate more solar energy than they use, but there are times when they are more reliant on backup. “We are constantly monitoring our energy – we know if it’s been a good or a bad day,” says Rachael. Solar provides all of their electricity needs, and they still use gas for cooking and hot water. A petrol generator tops up their batteries – in their first year of solar it provided 17 per cent of power in the winter months “which we’re keen to cut down this winter coming”, says Rachael.
They use wood grown on site and coppiced by Fraser to heat their home. While the couple don’t have a wind turbine, “we generally find anything with moving parts is more likely to go wrong”, they are considering building their own wood gas generator, which would provide a relatively clean and sustainable source of energy.
None of this is cheap – Rachael and Fraser’s solar system cost some £23,000, but the costs of hooking up to the national grid can run into six figures – although, of course, there are no subsequent energy bills.
How much power does a family need? According to Ofgem, the average household uses 8kWh of electricity and 33kWh of gas a day. “A good smart system will also allow you to store the excess energy produced for future use, meaning it should more than match the family’s or the individual’s needs,” says Bruce Wang, chief executive of US-China battery and portable power station manufacturer EcoFlow. “It’s feasible to use a smart-home ecosystem to live off-grid in the long term, although it depends on energy consumption.”
One of the first innovations the couple introduced was a water filtration system – but this relied initially on a generator to pump the rainwater water through the system; the cost of this was prohibitive, so for most of the day, they had no power or running water. “Imagine that with a young baby,” says Rachael. In drier times, they’d bring in water from family homes nearby. Now the £2,000 system runs on a computer-controlled pump, and the couple plan to invest in a UV water purifier.
Seven years earlier, a contractor dug a bore hole on site for a ground supply, but water turned out to be salty, much to Fraser’s disgust – this encounter has led him to tackle any new projects himself. But their water needs have increased since they built polytunnels planted with thirsty vegetables, and they plan to install a 10,000-litre tank and build a shallow well with a pump for a more reliable supply – and more crops. “Price hikes, the pandemic – it made you realise food supply isn’t guaranteed,” says Rachael.
This ‘good life’-style self-sufficiency has led the couple to pore over instruction videos online and order equipment – which wouldn’t have been possible without a relatively cheap, battery-powered sim internet router. Easy access to the internet has been transformative, says Fraser. He can now check in on security cameras remotely and in real-time – he stores much of machinery on site and has suffered frequent thefts. “And now you don’t have to stand outside in the freezing cold to get a signal.”
Going off-grid requires investment up front, but the payback comes in the lifestyle and lack of bills, though engineers point out that off-gridders are committing to long-term upkeep of the equipment they install. And it’s not always a greener choice – particularly as the national grid is powered by a greater mix of clean energy – new renewable energy equipment and newly built homes will have a carbon footprint.
And there are low points – for instance, when a failing shower in winter requires a freezing trip outside to fix the tank. Holding down two full-time jobs – Rachael is currently on maternity leave – and managing the property is demanding, alongside looking after two children. Their days begin around 6am and can finish around midnight. Any spare time they spend recording more ‘how-to’ videos for their YouTube channel. But now the couple have tasted privacy and freedom, there is no going back. “Some neighbours have half-a-million-pound houses, but they’re so close to each other, I would just rather live in my mobile home,” says Fraser. This is a lifelong choice, says Rachael. “We’re in it for the long haul, because we’ve felt the benefits it brings and have seen the amazing impact it’s having on the lives and development of our children.”
Innovations on the horizon for off-grid living
Batteries to store excess clean energy are essential to cushion off-gridders when renewables run short. Off-grid solar – a nice-to-have choice in the West – is the only energy option for millions of people around the world. However, to achieve universal access to electricity, the off-grid solar sector would need to serve some 132 million households, according to World Bank estimates. Innovative battery storage is considered key to driving a sustainable future.
Lithium-ion batteries are favoured over traditional lead-acid batteries for off-grid living, say experts, as they’re faster to charge and discharge, can cope with larger loads, and last longer. But they still have a shelf life and aren’t designed for easy repair or reuse, says Carlton Cummins, co-founder of clean technology start-up Aceleron. “We need to create things that can be reused rather than disposed of,” he says. His company has designed a modular, serviceable battery and an all-in-one sustainable energy storage system (Offgen) with an integrated adaptor – it is, says Cummins, more easily repairable and easily upgradeable. “It’s designed to be serviceable, which is really important if you’re out there with limited access to resources. You can take the unit apart, remove a module and install another one. When you are out there and off-grid, you need to be able to support yourself.”
Solar – the preferred clean energy for off-grid living – can be combined with wind power in an off-grid system.
Wind turbines traditionally require height and a steady breeze to work efficiently, but a new design could work better close to buildings. Two or three hexagonal panels less than a metre across could generate enough energy to power an average home, says Victoria Phillips, wind lead engineer at Katrick Technologies, a Glasgow-based start-up. “You can pair these with solar, or simply increase the number of panels you need.” Unlike traditional turbines, these panels still work well in gusty and low winds and are less intrusive. “We’ve had a phenomenal number of enquiries from people who’ve been looking for technology to power their homes,” she says. Each hexagon contains 12 mini aerofoils, which oscillate and provide a larger surface area than a single turbine – and if one fails, the others will continue to work. Ducts help direct wind flow and the panels function in wind speeds as low as 2-3m/s (4-7mph). “We’ve designed it so it can operate in very low winds compared to standard rotational turbines,” says Phillips. Now in the final stages of development, a prototype will go on trial in December; larger-scale versions could be used in industrial locations such as airports or in energy farms to enable 24-hour production.
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