Yesterday I went on the radio to talk with a couple of other people about living off grid. Trouble is though you get a few minutes to talk and then its over without really getting to say what you wanted, unless you’re a trained media professional, which I’m not.  As the programme progressed I realised that the feeling was that it is a terribly expensive pastime that you need money and lots of knowledge to get into, and there was talk of twenty thousand pound wind turbines and thousands of pounds worth of battery storage. At the end I managed to get in the point that you don’t need to have a fortune to do this, but I suspect it was largely lost. Here’s an opportunity to explain that in more detail.

It was suggested that solar on every house would be wonderful, and that there are generous grants in Ireland to help people put solar up, which is true. But the problem that the providers of solar, the policy makers, and the wannabe politicians don’t get is that whatever the grant is, the installers will charge more because they get the money. Never mind that solar is dirt cheap, or that you could go and get used but servicable panels for a fraction of the cost. A grant for 75% of 10,000 is no use to anyone who hasn’t got the money up front, so that rules out most people. In fact we couldn’t afford to get paid for selling our electricity to the grid (if we had it) because we couldn’t come close to finding the money for the installation. So we had to get creative.

As with all these things there are lower cost solutions that ok, aren’t going to be the same as their more expensive counterparts, but they will provide you with a start.

Let me give you an example. We lived in a converted horse truck before we moved in here, partly because we wanted to see how it worked out and partly because we knew it would be low cost. The vehicle could cost somewhere between £500 and £800 depending on whether you want it mobile or not, and fitting out as much or little as you can afford, and how creative you are. We began with two 80w panels, a cheap controller and 2 batteries. Total cost about £300. If we’d used old lorry batteries that could have been £200, and that was before we discovered seconds panels. 80% of our solar here is old unwanted panels that were free. One or two are panels that were dropped during installation and needed a cable replacing. Again,free. To begin with we made the mounts using metal strap and bits of 3×2 timber, and we bought second hand controllers. It did the job. Over time, we’ve expanded that as we’ve had a bit more money but the point is that we got started for little money. It involved some cheeky asking of people, and picking up the phone. People say we are lucky, but a large part of that comes from being cheeky enough to ask ‘can I have that’. People don’t always say yes, but we only remember the ones who do.

Our wind turbine. The first one was a chinese kit, much derided by energy ‘professionals’. It was 500 watts and it worked great. It still is in fact, just not here. It gave us a supply when we needed it and it was less than a grand. There are courses where you can learn to make your own, and make masts out of scaffold poles. Again, now we’ve a bigger turbine, that we came upon by chance, and it has had some repairs but it stands us at less than £2000. New it would cost £5000, add in a second hand mast for £500 and that is £5500. A lot less than the £20,000 quoted on the programme, and it does what we need.

Buildings. Our current kitchen cost £50 and that was for the piece of cedar that we made the worktop from – the kitchen is made from the ceiling of the extension we demolished. Our front windows are made from bullet proof glass panels salvaged from an old bank. The other windows and doors are salvaged.  We did all the work here ourselves – not always because we knew how, but because not being able to afford to pay someone to do it, made us creative. We buy books, we learn. We keep an ear to the ground. We give surplus away, we take surplus in. That’s how this works.

Similar projects include the biodigester that we’re going to build in the summer. It’ll cost less than a hundred quid, and produce usable cooking gas from kitchen waste and animal poo. Ask someone in the ‘green energy industry’ about the cost of a biodigester and see what they say. It’ll be a lot. The point is there are ways to do these things on a home scale for little money, but that the gulf between that, and commercial solutions costing tens of thousands.

Our mission here is to empower people so that they have the confidence to try these things for themselves, at a small scale and on what we hope is an affordable scale. That is reflected in our course prices, and the range of things we put on. Hopefully we’ll see some of you there. For more details of events click here