Royal Roads prof studies Canadian 'off-gridders'
Jan 23 2012
Christian Barr and Enzien Kufeld are potters who live "off the grid" west of Edmonton. They bought an unserviced, rural piece of land and, because they couldn't afford to get it serviced, live with solar panels for power, a well for water and fuel their kiln with wood.Photograph by: Bruce Edwards, Edmonton Journal
CALGARY — Life’s not so scary off the grid.
It’s not just the domain of hippies or hermits, or even self-important hipsters.
Rather, those with “mindfulness” about their own community and their role within it — plus a working knowledge of a watt, volt and amp — have the chops to unplug from electricity or heat or even the Internet.
So claims a Greater Victoria researcher travelling the country studying Canadians who have chosen to go off the grid.
Over the next two years, Royal Roads University professor Phillip Vannini is travelling across Canada meeting with people who aren’t hooked up to power, water and other utility infrastructures.
In a generation where awareness is high that non-renewable energy resources are depleting, Vannini is setting out to prove that rather than panicking, it’s simple to embrace changes and commit to new, more energy-efficient lifestyles.
“It’s just a series of choices you make to determine how you want to connect with the rest of the world rather than just have the rest of the world come into your home through these various infrastructures,” Vannini said in an interview.
“When you live off grids, you suddenly become aware that the environment in which you live can provide you with some resources to meet your needs. You switch to an attitude of mindfulness. You’re suddenly aware, it’s a cloudy day, there’s not a bit of wind in the sky, you can’t turn on your dryer, you tell the kids, ‘Sorry, you can’t play video games today.’ ”
“It’s not a terribly unusual person who does it, just someone whose really committed to their values.”
For the purposes of his study, he’s interviewing a broad range of people who have gotten off at least one grid.
He describes grids as the “infrastructure that connect us to the various utilities networks that make our society what it is.”
Heat, roads, telephones, television, Internet, water, sewage all fit the bill. The most common grid people get off of, however, is electricity.
Alberta is prime ground for the lifestyle, Vannini said.
“Alberta is almost entirely reliant on natural gas and coal. Those are two non-renewable resources. The people that live off the grid in Alberta actually gain a lot,” he said.
Vannini has visited “floating homes,” off the coast of British Columbia, cabins in the middle of the Yukon and downtown Edmonton homes to learn more about the array of lifestyles off the grid.
The people he talks to are no “hippies in the desert,” he said.
“In Canada, it’s much different. Here, it requires a great investment into the system that can allow you to survive,” he said.
Most “off-gridders,” he said, share ideals about the environment, but understand they need to make some compromises to survive.
For example, the majority of homes he’s visited have Internet connections and phones — useful in emergencies.
Vannini initially planned to interview about 100 people. He’s already at 75 after visiting just B.C., Yukon, and Alberta, so he expects the number could be almost doubled.
The majority of the people he meets are educated, well-informed and committed to the environment in the place they live.
During a recent stop in Alberta, Vannini met with 18 off-gridders, including West Bragg Creek resident Ralph Cartar.
Cartar, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Calgary, has gone off the electricity grid.
He and his wife and their 10-year-old daughter live in a passive solar house primarily heated by the sun.
The home is constructed of high insulation material and south-facing windows to gain the energy from the sun.
He and his wife, also a University of Calgary professor, drive into Calgary to get to work each day. The energy-efficient home helps mitigate some of that “shame of commuting,” Cartar said, until the couple can purchase hybrid cars.
The 2,200-square-foot home cost about 10 per cent more to build due to the extra solar heating material.
Cartar said the payback period is quick because of lower energy costs.
“It costs us about 20 per cent the energy that the same size home would cost in Calgary.”
For about 10 months of the year, the home has tons of power. In the coldest of the winter months, a small amount of natural gas helps heat food and a masonry wood stove keeps the home warm.
The couple uses a specially designed low-energy fridge and freezer, and have been known to stash food in the snow in the winter to keep it chilled.
The family keeps an eye on the battery charge and the day’s weather helps determine, for example, whether dinner will be a quick pasta or an hour-long roast in the oven.
In many ways, the home functions like any other, Vannini said. Energy is plentiful.
“It’s really easy living,” he said.
“You don’t have to compromise lifestyle to live off grid.”
It’s a message Vannini said rings true.
Plentiful energy has spoiled us so that it’s difficult to muster concern about its dirty sources, he said.
“The challenge is to become mindful of what you can do and what you cannot do.”
Off-gridders are united by their concern for the Earth’s future. But they’re also connected by the allure of self-sufficiency more common in the past, said Vannini.
“What’s becoming really clear is the rest of us can learn or relearn a few basic skills about mindfulness towards the environment and basic self-sufficiency,” he said.
“When we do start to run out of these resources, maybe we can realize that the life that awaits us is not going to be that scary.
“The surprising thing is that it’s actually quite enviable.”