Disconnect from the Grid, Reconnect with the Planet

The grid: that vast network of utilities that includes electricity, water, sewage, gas and telephone lines. Most utility bills are predictably unpredictable. They maintain a monthly grip around the wallet, keeping most people tethered to one monopoly or another.

For a growing number of people, the idea of disconnecting from the grid can be appealing and somewhat intimidating at the same time. The consequences of climate change, geopolitical instability and socioeconomic disparity are creating profound uncertainty, incentivizing many to move off the power grid – in whole or in part.

Small pockets of people around the globe are increasingly disconnecting from the lattice of black wires that almost surrealistically imposes itself against an otherwise harmonious landscape. Seeking to take back power – literally and figuratively – is not easy, but small sustainable communities and individuals are demonstrating that it can be done. Moreover, they are proving that there are many benefits.


Unplugging: Tyalgum, NSW

Several years ago, local businessman, Andrew Price, bought a butter factory in the tiny town of Tyalgum, NSW. His idea was to create a renewable energy center in the small tourist town of an estimated 300 residents, with the aim of introducing the tourists – and the public in general – to the possibilities and benefits of renewable energy as a technology for personal use in their homes. He then realized that the town had all the ingredients to expand the idea into a renewable energy township.

His vision to take Tyalgum off the grid could result in it being the first town of its kind in the country. To move the dream from concept to reality, he enlisted the aid of Kasey Clifford as project manager. Clifford obtained an initial grant of $15,000 and flew in several experts. Essentially, the experts had two chief goals: promote community engagement and conduct a feasibility study.

Alex Houlston, one of the experts who works with Energy For The People, said, “Our objective is always to find some kind of social benefit that the whole community can get behind . . . clean energy projects can support community gardens . . . whatever it might be that actually brings a community together.”

Tosh Szatow was another expert Clifford hired to conduct the feasibility study. Szatow concluded that the only risk to the proposed project was social division. Specifically, the concern was about people opting out. However, Szatow concluded that the way to manage risk was through staging, where the project would be implemented in phases. In any event, “the last step of taking the town completely off the grid would occur only with full consensus,” said Szatow.

According to Clifford, “They gave authority to our project and made people comfortable in the direction we were heading and were really enthusiastic about how we could do this.” That enthusiasm has translated into baby steps that could teach other towns not only in Australia, but elsewhere around the world, how to walk off the power grid.

Tiny Towns: Blueprints for Reducing Footprints

Tyalgum could become the first town in Australia to convert to 100-percent unplugged status, but there are other communities around the world that have already disconnected. Some offer Tyalgum – and others – invaluable insights into how to start walking-the-talk.

For instance, Taos, New Mexico witnessed the first Earthships as far back as the 1970s. These off-the-grid ready homes were the brainchild of American architect, Michael Reynolds, the founder of Earthship Biotechture. The core goals were (1) to construct homes that adhered to the fundamentals of sustainable architecture, using recycled materials and indigenous material; (2) to design the homes so that they were independent of the grid, using only renewable energy sources; and (3) to empower people with the feasibility to build the homes with no special construction skills. Unlike Tyalgum, the Taos Earthship community is more of a collection of off-grid homes located on approximately 634 acres, than it is a town.

A particularly robust example of off-grid grit and capacity is Feldheim, Germany. This small rural town of 145 residents is located just 80 kilometres south of Berlin. Started in 1995, it is Germany’s first community to become completely energy independent. The thousands of ecotourists who make Feldheim a destination immediately discover an array of renewable energy sources that uniquely fit the town’s needs, including a solar plant, a wind farm, biogas, and biomass facilities. Not only do residents pay one-third less for their electricity as compared to other German towns and cities, but they have also significantly shrunk their carbon footprint.

Earthaven, on the other hand, is a community of about 60 people living and working on 320 acres in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Thirty-five buildings rely on hydropower and solar panels to remove it from the electrical grid. Planned development intends to expand the village to 150 people on 56 home sites. The take-away here is that it is Earthaven’s access to water-rich resources that enables it to depend on hydropower as a central energy component.

While there are numerous examples of sustainable homes and communities being built elsewhere on virtually all continents, this sampling reinforces Tyalgum’s aspirations as realistic and offers it a hopeful prognosis.

Following the Light: Considerations for Powering Off of the Grid

Whether you are considering a solo effort or are part of a collective, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. The most valuable threshold lessons to be learned from predecessor projects incorporate three central dimensions: scope of the project, indigenous use of materials and energy, and population management – or SIP.

Scope: Whether starting as an individual or as part of a larger community, phasing in different stages of off-grid capacity is one approach. For example, one could begin by installing solar panels, yet remain connected to city water and sewage, weaning off those gridlines later. Conversely, many people living in sustainable communities have built cisterns to collect water from local sources (or have their water hauled in), while maintaining their connection to electrical umbilical cords until they can replace them with renewable energy from a solar, wind, geothermal or other source. Of course, if you have the resources and are prepared to commit 100 percent, that is also an option, as is the case with Tyalgum and similarly situated communities. The upshot here is that moving off the grid does not require the immediate removal of all things grid-locked.

Indigenous: The use of local materials and energy sources will optimize your success in reducing both the heaviness of your environmental footprint, as well as the weight of your utility bills. Constructing homes and buildings with indigenous clays, for instance, simultaneously reduces transportation costs and creates an aesthetic quality that fits the local geoscape. As in some of the examples provided above, geothermal might be more readily available in certain areas, while others have abundant solar or wind resources. Adapting to the local landscape is key in ensuring a successful plan.

Population: Whether it is Tyalgum or any other sustainable community, starting with a modest population of below 300 residents appears to be the magic number. This is likely due to the heightened level of community engagement that is required in order to achieve optimum results: the more people there are, the higher the risk of social division. This does not mean that larger communities – including cities – cannot detach from all-things-grid. What it does mean is that given the essence of its decentralized nature – especially while this nascent effort remains in its most embryonic stages – the smaller the community, the greater its likelihood of success.

Structural Hurdles

Sourcing power from renewable energy is achievable, although there are several hurdles that first must be cleared. For Tyalgum residents, there are two options. According to Szatow, the first route is for every house and business to be outfitted with solar capacity, backed up by individual battery storage units. Alternatively, Tyalgum could centralize its energy source by constructing a hub in town that would deliver power to entire population.

For now, Tyalgum’s residents are comparing the costs of the two approaches. Current estimates place the initial expenditures at between $4 million to slightly above $7 million. Additional considerations are chiefly legal. These include transferring ownership of a segment of the power network, which is currently owned by the local electricity provider, to the town; negotiating easements; developing access; implementing tariffs; and modifying regulations and statutes to authorize and accommodate the new power structure.

Take a SIP

If you are considering erasing the lines, sit back and take a SIP. Sustainable communities are not homogenous. They optimize a blend of local flavors that incorporate everything from locally-derived natural resources to human resources in order to create the ultimate permaculture experience. If you are considering going all the way – as in wirelessly free – then taking into account the size of your community, your skill sets and access to proximate resources is the first point of discussion that can jolt you into a new and hopefully better reality.

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