SUSTAINABILITY: Off the Grid – or a Distributed Network?

Many of us have friends or family who 20 or 30 years ago chose to leave the city and set up an independent life, building stand-alone house in remote part of the country. The dream was to get away from it all, to be self-sufficient, ‘off the grid’ both literally and figuratively. To remove themselves from the dirt and noise of the city, grow their own vegetables, keep their own chickens and generate their own electricity was way of taking control of their lives again.
While the rest of us watched avidly, these people put in the hard yards and hosted us as refugees from the big smoke over weekend or two. When I think about this dream now, the picture is less than perfect. Not only did the lifestyle require huge amounts of physical work, the independence took its toll for many of them.
What happened when the adults of the community grew tired or sick, or the kids needed better schooling? When the composting toilet got rats? When the solar water tubes rusted or got broken?
To keep the lifestyle going required major, valiant effort, and many people returned to the verges of the cities to smaller lifestyle blocks when their vision grew blurry. Others have put in septic tanks and had their house hooked up with the electricity grid.
There may have been small loss of pride involved but the acknowledgement that it is hard to pull out of the huge social and economic network is excellent learning for the rest of us. And it points the way to where much of the new thinking about society and business is going and wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we could use the ingenuity and willingness of these social entrepreneurs to assist us with the generation of our national energy supplies?
We have problem now with distribution. The further you move it the more you lose. Currently, somewhere around 20 percent of the electricity generated on the East Coast of the South Island is lost when it is transported to the West Coast. Would you allow 20 percent of your product or service to be lost in transportation? There are smarter ways to ensure that energy is not lost in transmission.
Back in 2006, the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment published “Get Smart, Think Small: Local Energy Systems for New Zealand” (see www.pce.govt.nz/reports/allreports/1_877274_41_0.shtml). It is an excellent resource detailing vision of system of local energy generation sites, all hooked up back to the grid.
This image of network of small communities able to power most of their needs is truly inspiring one. And the generation through solar and wind turbines doesn’t just have to happen in rural areas. Many suburbs in Los Angeles are thick with roofs covered in solar panels. I’ve even heard of someone who installed their solar panels on the wrong side of the house – because they wanted to impress their neighbours. Not so energy smart, but you get my point.
We can continue to leave it up to the Electricity Commission to plan and forecast how our energy is generated and distributed. Or we can talk with our energy retailers about ‘grid feed’ – the ability for us as consumers to sell our renewable energy back to the grid.
There are many enterprising solar water and photo-voltaic retailers who are part of the SBN membership we can support. EECA has good information about the recently increased subsidy available to homeowners for solar water heaters.
We know that our national energy supplies are precarious, and that much of the issue is in the transmission, rather than the generation, of energy. We have problem getting the energy where it is needed.
Natural resources are not an issue – we have the cream of renewables options at hand. Contact Energy’s plan from 2007 for 90 percent renewables future is great starting point for discussion (see www.contactenergy.co.nz/web/pdf/financial/20080226_90percent_renewable_future.pdf ). Much of this plan involves larger industry collaboration – and what I’d like to see is the willing individuals and well-capitalised smaller industry players making local generation possibility for smaller sites too. We can all play our part – and wouldn’t that create quick education in energy conservation as well?

Rachel Brown is CEO of the Sustainable Business Network. For more information go to www.sustainable.org.nz or email [email protected]

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