It’s more than just energy

Going off-the-grid brings with it the challenge of changing our lifestyle

In the early 1990s, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador changed its energy policy to allow for private mini-hydro developments, and proponents were quick to come out with proposals that involved significant alterations and potential effects of salmon rivers. It is important to point out that in domestic micro-hydro we are working on a scale that mostly has little appreciable effect on water bodies in the context of the province’s Water Resources Act. In fact, Section 4. (1) of the Act allows for use of water for domestic purposes without appreciable alteration in its quality or quantity.

Micro versus Mini

Developing energy for our own homes is commonly referred to as a ‘micro’ application, meaning ‘especially small’. In most domestic applications of off-the-grid energy we are working at a micro scale because our electrical generation is usually only one or two kilowatts (kW) (1 kW = 1,000 Watts), therefore allowing for 24 kWh of potential consumption compared to 35 kWh or more over a 24 hour period for ordinary domestic consumers that are on-the-grid. For example, a micro-fit system in Ontario is classified as 10 kW or less. In contrast, mini-hydro projects are in the realm of megawatts (mW) (1 mW = 10,000 W), usually between 1 mW and 100 mW, so we are talking many orders of magnitude in difference.

Mostly, micro-hydro is tapping water from small brooks, springs, and creeks that may even be seasonal in nature, and the main factor driving the turbine is the water pressure created by the elevation difference between the intake and the micro-turbine (known as the ‘head’), that spins magnets over coils of wire creating electricity. A wind turbine is doing exactly the same thing inside.

Many ways to spin the wheel

Each micro-hydro situation is unique and requires its own configuration, so there is no buying one of these systems at a box store, in contrast to micro-wind turbines. We can think of two main strategies with micro-hydro, namely (i) generating the energy at the brook and bringing the electricity to our building by suitable wire (tech cable), or (ii) bringing a flow of water from the stream through a small pipe to our micro-turbine on site and returning the water to the source.

The first approach is attractive because, for example, we could live near a significant brook that has a cascade of waterfalls over a small distance and therefore place our small diameter pipe at the top of the cascades and shunt it through a micro-turbine at the base of the falls, and then deliver the electricity through a suitable tech cable (over ground or buried).

In British Columbia, where micro-hydro is relatively common, many owners are only able to operate their systems in the fall-winter-spring period when there is lots of rain. We live in a boreal rainforest in Newfoundland, and enjoy similar wide variations in water flow. What’s dry in summer can be raging on and off in fall, winter, spring; therefore, at the Tree Of Life Sustainability Project Inc. we operate a micro-hydro and a wind turbine system so either or both are options.

Alternative energy and living

Since almost everything we use requires energy, going off-the-grid forces us to adapt to alternative routines of electricity use.

On-the-grid, we become numb to the amount of electricity we use because it is seemingly unlimited. For example, all those devices that maintain standby power, such as computers, clock radios, cordless phones, answering machines and battery chargers, can account for up to five per cent of our electrical use. These invisible costs disappear when you are off-the-grid because we maximize available power by ensuring everything is turned off or unplugged when not being used.

In living off-the-grid we are fitting life within the limits of the resources at hand, and this leads one into a lifestyle termed ‘permaculture’.

But lifestyle changes extend beyond electricity when you have to consider things such as the size and energy efficiency of your house in relation to the energy that you can realistically generate.

Energy is getting expensive, families are getting smaller, and houses are getting bigger. We live in an irrational materialistic society where our only sense of success is more floor space, more vehicles, more gadgets. So in living off-the-grid we are fitting life within the limits of the resources at hand, and this leads one into a lifestyle termed ‘permaculture’. Popularized by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, permaculture is a philosophy of working with local resources, rather than against nature. It is seen as inextricable from maintaining local culture, hence the name ‘perma(nent) culture’. It is increasingly recognized as essential for sustaining rural communities.

Your money or your life

In our treadmill culture it is good to step back and ask: “Are we earning a living or earning a life?”

It is a shocking reality for many people to sit down, do the calculations, and realize that they have already earned hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in their lifetime, and still have little to show for it. In fact, many are still in debt, paying off vehicle loans, mortgages and lines of credit to the banks. Going off-the-grid brings with it a re-evaluation of these norms in order that one’s resources can be put toward things that pay-back, like alternative energy. If you continue to pay-in, then you will have to continue that daily commute elsewhere and never really be grounded in your ‘place’.

The western culture has lost its ‘sense of place’. Because of technology and media, many fail to see the unique value of what they have. It is the pursuit of global availability of an infinite array of material things, and it takes money. At its current pace, rural Newfoundland will surely die and take with it this wonderfully unique culture, because people want to pursue money, be close to box stores, and be indistinguishable from the millions of westerners doing the same thing.

Zita Cobb, the Newfoundlander behind Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, delivered a powerful speech to the 700 delegates of the NL Business Hall Of Fame in 2013, emphasizing the ‘Two Pillars of Sustainability’ being Nature and Culture. Without one or the other we have sacrificed the scarce and unique for the common and cheap. In other words, our Newfoundland culture and place is rare and unique, and it is time to recognize that we have something to offer the world rather than striving to be like every other place in western culture.

What is a house?

In the mid 1800s, Henry David Thoreau moved to the woods near Concord, Massassachusets, and wrote the classic Waldon Pond, the message of which remains as pertinent today as it did well over a century ago. He wrote: “Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.”

Thoreau built a 200 square-foot log cabin and praised its comforts and functionality. In fact, many families today would function quite fine in 400-500 sq. ft. homes. You cannot talk seriously about energy efficiency and alternative energy while living out of behemoth houses that are more the norm these days than the exception.

When we take alternative energy seriously, we need to start with our houses, and how they can be designed and built to be as efficiently as possible, taking into consideration things such as: functional size, orientation to the sun’s radiant energy, the thermal mass to absorb and later release the heat, options for ground-source heat pumps and/or wind turbines, etc.

Are there energy alternative options for suburbanites?

In reality many people now find themselves where they are, and are looking for solutions to help reduce their energy bills by possibly investing in off-the-grid electricity production and/or more efficient means to convert on-the-grid electricity into heat (than conventional electrical heaters). In my last article I noted that any conversion of electricity into heat is energy demanding, and that conventional off-the-grid technologies cannot provide offsets to this form of heat. To take alternative energy seriously requires that we seek alternative means to heating.

In Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, Dr. David MacKay favours the option of retrofitting the newer air-source heat pumps into urban homes because the new models can deliver 3 to 5 kW of thermal energy for 1 kW of electricity consumed. He sees this as an important direction for energy-stressed suburbanites, the majority of whom in the St. John’s metropolitan area are getting less than 1 kW of heat energy for each kW of electricity consumed.

We have to face the reality that while some people can heat with wood, many cannot, and too many ground-source heat pumps in the neighbourhood will deplete the thermal value of the ground because this is not a limitless source of heat as it is actually accumulated from radiant absorption from the sun and air.

The newer air-source heat pumps that MacKay reports on also include models that transfer the heat into water, and can therefore be used to drive in-floor hydronic heating – heat that is transferred to fluid through the air-source heat pump and circulated through piping hidden under the floor or embedded in a thermal mass (e.g. cement) under the floor.

Electrical incentives

To promote alternative energy in a society that is provided electricity ad lib by corporate suppliers requires a progressive government that directs public utility companies to offer customers a higher rate per kWh to put electricity onto the grid than to take it off. This strategy first emerged in 2000 in Germany, where in combination with a tariff of about $40 US per year per customer, the grid now receives about 20 per cent of its power from private renewable sources.

In Ontario, private solar-source electricity dumped onto the grid receives about two to three times more per kWh than it costs to take power off. Energy from wind turbines there is dumped onto the grid about on par with what it costs to take electricity off. This is a very powerful strategy because it pays people to become informed and favours the development of renewable energy in the general populous. A lot of small contributions add-up to substantial inputs to the electricity grid.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the Energy Corporation Act (2007), and Hydro Corporation Act (2007) under 14.(1) (c), allow for the possibility that people could be putting power onto our grid. When you consider what a windy and watery place this is, you understand that this potential is vast here.

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