Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Science of Being Grateful

by Cam Mather

Is it a “science” or an “art”? I know I’ve missed the “thanksgiving” window to write such a blog, but today it hit me, how grateful I am. We’ve been having some “challenges” here at our “off-grid” home in the woods. The batteries that we’ve relied on to store the sun and wind’s energy have come to the end of their natural lives. I am grateful that Jean Stawarz, the previous owner, had managed to get a large battery bank that was taken out of a military bunker. Designed to keep our government operating during a nuclear war in the 1950s, the batteries are “ni-cads” and very high quality. They were projected to have a 50 or 60 year life. You will rarely find ni-cads in an off-grid home because of their high cost but in this case when the bunkers were decommissioned, they were up for grabs and Jean managed to get some.

The beauty of ni-cad batteries to someone like me who was so new to renewable energy is their resilience. You can’t over charge them or under charge them and they won’t even freeze if left in the cold. Having a sound battery bank allowed me to focus on other elements of our setup including building solar trackers, purchasing and installing more solar panels, installing a new wind turbine, upgrading the inverter, … the list seems pretty long. As we’ve upgraded our photovoltaic panels and installed a good quality wind turbine it has basically masked the deterioration of the batteries. There always seemed to be enough sun and wind to keep the batteries charged.

This fall has been a very cloudy one and it became clear that our batteries were at the end of their effective life. One of the other elements of our system that had the potential to be a weak link was our generator. We have a wonderful older Onan that has worked marvelously when we needed it to, up until this fall. Timing is everything in life and in our life this seems to be how things work. If you have weak batteries during the cloudy time, you need a good generator. Or if you have an undependable generator then you want to make sure you have good batteries. So guess what? We had neither. We went through several bleak days. You don’t replace a battery bank like ours overnight. Since I would need to buy new ones and they would more than likely be lead acid ones,  I suddenly had a lot to learn.

This is where being grateful comes in. I am grateful that our friend Sandy Twose came over and with his experience using generators in the movie business suggested that maybe the generator wasn’t synching to the inverter because it needed a load in order to output at a steady voltage. Luckily a few years ago I had an electrician rewire our generator to the inverter and he installed a regular receptacle between the generator and the inverter. Turns out by simply plugging in a space heater so that the generator was under a load before the inverter let it take over, the generator output was now steady and consistent, which is what our inverter likes. Sandy helped us “dodge a bullet” with his excellent suggestion!

I’m also grateful to have a friend like Bill Kemp who can help me to understand “Amp Hours” which is critical to purchasing new batteries properly. Everything I needed was in Bill’s book “The Renewable Energy Handbook”, but I’m grateful I can sit down with the author and pick his brain. As I have found, and as we have often heard back from our readers, Bill has the rare ability to explain technical issues so that non-technical people like me can understand it all.

As we’ve lived through these last few “challenging” weeks it’s easy to fall into the negative trap. So often people will say “Oh you live off-grid, that is so cool, I’ve always wanted to do that!” During times like this we laugh. If the power lines are near your house then connect to them. Set up your own independent renewable energy system, but use the grid as your battery bank. It’s a much better way to go, especially as so many governments are now offering exceptional programs to purchase your green electricity.

Today I was outside and I walked over to look at the pond and noticed that it was frozen. The brilliant sunlight was charging our batteries, even if they don’t hold the charge as well as they used to. The wind was blowing and I was under my wind turbine. The wind turbine was a huge job to install, but standing under it in a windy day, I am very grateful to live where I do. We’ve ordered our new batteries and it’s like the sun is shining here again. I occasionally have a tendency to dwell on the negative, but today the sun and wind made me infinitely positive.

I am grateful for all those pioneers who helped develop the technologies that allow me to live 4 miles from the nearest electricity pole. I am grateful that so many governments are now offering so many incentives that the industry is taking off. I’m grateful to George Smitherman, the former Minister of Energy in Ontario, who created the Green Energy Act which has a “Feed In Tariff” (FIT) that will pay homeowners .80¢.kwh for the electricity they pump into the grid. He has created a solar industry in the province almost overnight.

I’m grateful that Al Gore produced “An Inconvenient Truth” that has inspired so many people in North America to be aware of their impact on the planet and look to ways to reduce their footprint. I’m grateful that Barack Obama has had the intestinal fortitude to offer incentives for the building of a green energy infrastructure as part of his attempt to revive the U.S. economy. I’m grateful to the public pressure that has forced our Prime Minister, Steven Harper to grow up and attend the Copenhagen conference on climate change. I’ll be even more grateful if I see my representative showing leadership in this area rather than being a roadblock to an international treaty.

I don’t know whether Darth Vader ever actually said this in “Star Wars” but Michelle and I will jokingly say, “Luke, come over to the dark side.” It’s easy to go to the dark side and see only the negative. It’s tough to see the light when things are going poorly. Taking a minute and doing an inventory of all the simple things you have to be grateful for is a good first step to staying away from the dark side. And when you live in a solar-powered house and the sun comes out, all is well with the world! It’ll be even better when I get my new batteries hooked up!

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1 Comment

  1. ecodad

    As someone who has been in the solar business in Ontario for over 30 years, and installed over 800 solar systems, I take objection to your statement that the bully Smitherman has crested the solar industry almost overnight.

    Smitherman is gone, and I suspect the FIT program – that wasn’t his idea to begin with – will be gone within 3 years – after the “solar-baggers” have managed to exploit it to the max, and leave the common folk the bill to pay for FIT program that all the wealthy managed to take advantage of the government’s largess with our money. Look for grid power to go up in price to pay for this boondoggle!!

    This is just another case of the wealthy manipulating the system to take money from the not-wealthy!

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