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Living Totally Off-The-Grid On An Island Homestead

Life off-the-grid. Harvesting power from the sun and wind. Living with Nature.

Top photo: The homestead. Note the solar panels on the right and attached tall greenhouse to the left. The porch is the focal point of our cabin as it commands a panoramic of the valley below and the snow-capped mountains beyond. Our cabin is powered by 12 solar panels and 1 wind generator. We do not have a back-up gasoline-powered generator. We have a 12-volt refrigerator and freezer, a solar water heater, a solar water pump, a cistern to collect rainwater, and a wood stove to keep us warm in the cool months. We live in the Pacific Northwest where year-round temperature is on the mild side; summers are pleasant and dry, and winters are generally mild and drizzly. We've never run out of power in our several years of living this way. In the summer we shower outdoor with hot water from our solar batch collector. We stand under the hot jets of water and look out at Vancouver Island's magnificent Beaufort range before us. In the winter, we bathe Japanese style: we mix hot water from the wood stove with cold water from the cistern and dip half-coconut-shells into the bucket to wash ourselves. Or for a special treat, we bathe from our wood-fired Japanese Ofuro (cedar hot tub) and soak our tired muscles in the 106-degree water. It's a rustic life but an exhilarating one that we wouldn't trade for any other.

Our wind tower, with a cute little wind generator screwed to the top. This little generator would see us through the often windy, dim, and cloudy days of the Pacific Northwest winter that could last a week or more before the sun rears her head again.

The most satisfying moment in our newfound off-the-grid life came one spring morning when a middle-aged man drove up our steep driveway, got our of his car, and looked left and right behind the bushes and trees. I approached him and ask, "Hello there, what is it you are looking for?" Ignoring me, he kept darting his eyes left and right and mumbled something to himself. When I asked the question again, he looked at me and said in a somber voice, "Sir, I'm from BC Hydro (the local power company), and I'm looking for the meter." I played dumb and asked him, "Meter? What meter?" "The power meter, of course!" Then I smiled a big wide smile and said, "There is no meter. We are free! Free at last from the shackles of the grid! We generate our own power and we're not connected to the grid." He was slack-jawed, disappointed that I hadn't hidden an illegal meter behind the bush somewhere. The look of utter disbelief was written all over his face. When he grudgingly left, I knew it wasn't the last time I'd see him. True enough, for three more years at about the same time in the spring, I'd see him lurking behind the bushes, still looking for that illusive meter, still convinced that we were sneaking power from the grid somehow. It never occurred to him that we may not be interested in being on the grid or getting anything from the grid, that we felt liberated to be free from the grind of the grid, no longer having to be an unwilling participant in the common mass denominator of the often-destructive activity of power-generation for the masses, often at the expense of the environment.

View of the house from the south in the dead of winter. The cabin roof is bright red. The front of the house is partially obscured by a grove of bamboo, which started life here as two little twigs. To the right is the power shed with solar panels mounted on the roof. At the top of the picture in the middle, you could see a thin guy wire anchoring the wind tower. To the left is the 20-foot-tall attached greenhouse. Front left is one of our many cold frames.

We bring sunlight into our cabin by a solar tube, which multiplies sunlight through a long tube jutting out of the roof and becomes a round lighting fixture on the ceiling inside the house — it doesn't exchange heat or cold, just brings in very bright light on sunny days and moderately bright light on cloudy ones. We also have plenty of LED light bulbs, LED lanterns, a washer, an assortment of kitchen appliances like a fridge and freezer, juicers and blenders, and of course computers and a 3G connection to internet to do our work. We are outdoors most of the time, even in the winter months, for we greatly enjoy the fresh air & sunshine and being out in the garden. We love all the seasons.

We have learned to be modest with our energy consumption, to always heed the weather (we do most energy-intensive things when the sun is shining and use little power on cloudy or rainy days) and watch the voltage reading on the solar controller regularly to see where we are with our battery power. Our light bulbs use between 1 watts to 12 watts. A Japanese neighbor who came to visit said that our lighting reminded him of wartime Japan where even light was rationed and these dim lights were common and better than no light at all. But with the energy efficiency of some of today's light bulbs, we have been able to do most tasks under these lights with no eye strain at all. And LED's are not just incredibly energy efficient, they are totally amazing for task lights.

As I write this, the sun is shining through the window. It is early March and the sun is already strong. I cannot resist the urge to go out into the garden and soak in the rays of the sun, so I'll make this short. On sunny days, we have to think of creative ways to burn excess power generated by our solar panels; otherwise, the power just goes to waste. The battery can't take more, so we turn the music on loud or make all kinds of tasty concoctions with our powerful blender. Or we vacuum the house up and down and sideways. Living so modestly and frugally, we are split between feeling bad about using up so much power and feeling like we are wasting power if we don't use it more when the sun is shining and the battery is full.( If the battery can no longer store more solar power, you've got to use this excess up somehow or they are left unharvested and gone forever.) Of course, there's only so much we can do, and we've reconciled ourselves to the fact that we won't be able to harvest all of the energy freely given to us by the sun. We are grateful for every moment. It's all so beautiful out in the open air.

The solar batch collector lies on the ground in front of the power shed. The outdoor shower is mounted on the right wall of the power shed.

The solar tube brings sunlight into the house with bringing heat or cold.

View of a sunset from the balcony.

View of the cabin with attached 24-foot greenhouse; the power shed is to the right with solar panels on the roof. Photo is taken in February. Lots of hay mulch and wood chips everywhere.