I had an article on the Guardian web site today about a plan to build an off-grid village. It’s a very difficult thing to do in the UK because the powers-that-be are dead against it. But we have found a possible site in South Wales and we are looking for finance, and for pro bono help from lawyers, architects and housebuilders. (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
IF we do not succeed in raising finance for this project I will be trying to build an off-grid township in the USA where far more people live off grid already and there are fewer obstacles.
Meanwhile a report issued last month byUS investment bank Morgan Stanley shows the off-grid era had arrived: falling prices for renewable energy equipment and rising prices for energy supplied by Utility companies are fundamentally altering the business model of the trillion-dollar electricity industry.
Think about it for a moment and a sharp increase in the numbers living off-grid (currently between 75,000 –100,000 in the UK and over a million in America would fulfill a whole raft of policy objectives. With housing facing multiple crises of affordability and supply and, in the case of social housing, of funding and allocation – off-grid settlements offer an important new alternative. They can help solve three problems:cheap housing – how to enable it, energy security – how to improve it, and rural regeneration – how to kickstart it.
Policymakers see it as too weird or fringe to support off-grid initiatives. But they are being timid. The Morgan Stanley analysts are not voicing their opinion of the merits of off-grid living in their forecasts, they are simply pointing to the facts of the matter. A tipping-point has arrived.
When Morgan Stanley talked of the changing economics of the off-grid energy it was only partly referring to the sharp fall in the price of solar. The other part of the equation is energy storage. The power grid is like a giant battery, and up to £500 per year of our energy bills is paying for the maintenance of that battery. Morgan Stanley calculated that Tesla’s batteries would only cost an off-grid household £350 per year, rendering the Utility company business model obsolete.
One key piece of the jigsaw is the Tesla Motor company’s announcement (also last month) of a huge increase in battery production, bringing down the cost of energy storage capacity by over 50%. Morgan Stanley’s Stephen Byrd and team explain:
Our analysis suggests utility customers may be positioned to eliminate their use of the power grid. Tesla Motors plans to build a “Gigafactory” for battery production on an unheard-of scale. That news, coupled with ongoing cost/efficiency improvements in distributed generation, prompted our state-by-state analysis of potential implications for the utilities.
“A transition to off-grid power would benefit Tesla and SunEdison. We expect Tesla’s batteries to be cost competitive with the grid in many states, and think investors generally do not appreciate the potential size of the market.”
Morgan Stanley even say that “Tesla could provide emergency power service by monitoring the power levels in home batteries and delivering replacement batteries in the event that home batteries run out of power.”
Another report this month forecast there would be a boom in microgrids, small networks distributing locally produced energy. Local communities will fuel most of the growth in microgrids over the next five years. Other microgrids will be built by the military, industrial companies, institutions like Universities and Utility companies R&D departments.
In America there has been a sharp rise in the number living off the grid – from under a million 5 years ago to over two million today, according to my own estimates.
In the UK, growth is slower – land prices and our planning permission system inhibit progress – but there are encouraging signs. I am involved with a plan to turn a defunct coal mine into an off-grid village, and a new factory in South Wales has launched to produce solar powered gadgets of all sorts.
Back in 2007 I set off around Britain in a camper van to meet the people who were living this way, and wrote a book about it , called How to Live Off-Grid. I visited deep green protesters in Devon and inner-city unemployed near Sheffield – but the most interesting communities were in Scotland and Wales where slightly different laws and a greater tolerance of social experiments has spawned a handful of a success stories.
Then the main motivations for living off grid were ideological – either ecological taking personal responsibility for reducing carbon and water, or alternatively a weariness with consumerism – a desire to spend less and consequently a need to earn less.
But the following year came the banking crash, and interest in off-grid living grew sharply, although the motivations had shifted. Then, and still now, there was a feeling that one might have to look after oneself, that the State and politicians could no longer be trusted to with our welfare in the event of social or economic or environmental collapse. Separately, the numbers who were going off grid because there was simply no other affordable option also increased. In 2010 I repeated the same exercise in America where conditions are far more favourable for off-grid living
My books inspired thousands to try the off-grid life for themselves. Because of the planning obstacles already mentioned the fastest growing segment of the British off-grid community are living on urban canals and rivers. In London, where I once wrote about a couple of dozen narrow boats moored in Springfield Park Hackney, there are now hundreds, perhaps thousands along the Lea Valley and all the way into Broadway Market in South Hackney, where the live-aboard owners run bookshops and cafes to cater to the landlubbers who flock to the area. Many are attracted to the low-cost way of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities/ “You’d be surprised how many people are living well in London with no money,” said George, who kindly let the Guardian photograph me on his well-maintained narrow boat. George looked about 23, clean-cut and studious. He made his money, he said, repairing bicycles. His main expense was diesel fuel which he buys from passing tender boats. He has a couple of dozen moorings he uses as he shifts about the waterways on his “continuous cruiser” license. A long-time resident of the moorings around Springfield Park, Jim Lynch said “I didn’t want to pay my rent money to property developers. You can see more of Jim on the Youtube film at the beginning of this story.
“I’ve got a solar panel and I charge the batteries through the engine once very three days. I make my own diesel from vegetable oil.”
If the government’s housing czars and energy strategists want a quick win, they need look no further than supporting two or three experimental off-grid communities. At relatively low cost they could quickly create thousands of homes in rural areas plagued by unemployment and depopulation. These communities would have a lower carbon footprint than the average, and I believe that the houses would be cheaper to produce partly because they would not need the grid brought to their door. Also because the rooms would be significantly smaller than in the typical home, since off-grid designs incorporate the understanding that heating and maintenance costs are lower in smaller buildings.
Living off-grid is labour intensive and that in itself would generate some jobs. Food production and the turning of waste into energy would create some more. And I think that many off-grid communities in future will be filled with teleworkers since wireless 4G Internet will be available at relatively low cost, without the need for any infrastructure other than a phone mast. Wireless routers consume no more power than a lightbulb.
Please, lawyers, architects, local authorities and housebuilders: help us realise this vision.
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