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magazine / jun12

June 2012 issue


IN HABITAT

Life off the grid
An ethnographer and videographer meet the people whose homes produce all the energy they need
By

Lasqueti Island, British Columbia from InnovativeEthnographies on Vimeo.

What happens when you apply heat and cold to a Peltier junction?” Don quizzes Jonathan and me. “Come on, guys. Haven’t you ever heard of a Peltier junction?”

I bombed at high school physics. I underachieved even more at shop. I recall my teacher pleading with my parents to keep me away from any job that would require me to use my hands.

“Well, you get electricity!” Don answers his own question, emphasizing the simplicity of it all.

“I did well in social studies,” I reply to save face.

“I concentrated on the visual arts,” adds Jonathan.

In fact, in a roundabout way, that’s how we ended up here today in rural Alberta: not to practise off-grid living but to document it through our ethnographic work. Perhaps by later next year, after we have journeyed to every province and territory to learn why and how people live untethered to the electrical grid, Jonathan and I will have acquired enough confidence and skills to pull it off ourselves. For now, we are a long way away.

Don is unimpressed by our answers, but he confidently soldiers on to explain how a simple (sort of) physics principle — a Peltier junction, wood heat and a self-assembled geothermal cold-water pump — might eventually allow Don and partner Maxine to generate electricity to supplement their windmill and photovoltaic system. And that should enable them to put a dent in their monthly use of eight litres of fuel for their backup Honda generator.

Don reminds me of a shop teacher, probably because he once was one. Both former teachers, Don and Maxine live off the grid in the Peace Region of Alberta, 65 kilometres from the nearest corner store. They used to camp here during summers, on a double quarter-section property that provided them with self-dug pond water for washing and beetle-killed pine wood for heating. Wilderness camping trained them for the lifestyle that would await them after retirement. That’s when, at the stage when most people look to settle into a life of ease, Don and Maxine moved into the bush and signed up for a lot more work.

But it’s not a lot of work, they tell us, and they don’t sacrifice on comforts. That’s the line Jonathan and I have come to expect when meeting off-gridders. Interestingly, however, Don and Maxine began by building a shop first and filling it with tools. Without spending one nickel on labour, they cleared the land and designed and built a passive solar-smart 140-square-metre home. A methodically computed Excel spreadsheet allowed them to estimate precise age of retirement and daily needs, down to the penny and watt.

From a series of basic try-this-at-home experiments — the kind I never failed because I was too scared to even try — they learned the techniques to conserve and generate heat and electricity.

Their most ingenious creation was a collection of 24,000 litres of water sealed in containers and stacked in the crawl space in motley piles of different shapes and sizes. The water is heated during winter by a wood stove and during autumn and spring by warm air fanned down from the solar collector by the blower from their old Datsun’s car heater. The water absorbs and radiates heat, reducing the need to burn additional wood and stabilizing the temperature upstairs.

The kicker is that all the containers, formerly used for soap, wax, laundry detergent and soy sauce, were patiently scavenged from schools, restaurants, hotels and recycling depots.

Self-sufficiency, says Maxine, is the main goal and challenge here.

Somehow, I lost that challenge a long time ago. And I am not alone. An entire generation of sad-sack shop students like me has grown up learning that gaping holes in basic DIY skills are no big deal. That’s because corporate utilities are there to warm up our energy-inefficient houses with rapidly vanishing natural resources and to connect us to vast infrastructures designed, built and exploited by ostensibly benevolent providers keen on making a buck off our klutzy, spoiled selves.

“We just wanted to prove we could do it,” reflects the retired shop teacher. This time, I take careful notes.

Phillip Vannini is a professor in the School of Communication and Culture and a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

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