Why do people choose to live in homes that are not connected – by design or by default – to established electricity or gas networks?
It’s a question that we have asked here on One Step many times. But for Phillip Vannini, producer of the Canadian 2015 documentary Life Off Grid, it’s a question he asked at least 200 times, between 2011 and 2013, as he travelled to every province and territory in the country visiting “off-gridders” in their homes.
It’s an amazing journey that looks into the lives of a broad church of people, many of whom have chosen “quit the grid” in almost every way – with the notable exception of the internet, which only three of the film’s subjects had chosen to go without – including sourcing their own water, composting their own effluent and growing their own food. But some of the most interesting viewing centred around how people were making do without grid-generated electricity or heating.
So what did Vannini discover about why everyday people quit the grid?
“Why is always a good question, and there isn’t a single answer,” he told One Step in a telephone interview from Canada. “People wouldn’t ever answer, oh, that they just got up in the morning and decided ‘I’m going to go off the grid’.
“They would gradually decide to change their lifestyle, or they would move to a place where the nearest electricity pool was too far, or they did it because it was more economic, more sustainable, more fun – whatever the reasons, there was a gradual realisation that it was a right thing for them.”
Indeed, one of the most striking things about the film, which was directed by Jonathan Taggart, is the different types of off-gridders, how different their stories are, and their methods of energy self-sufficiency.
As Vannini puts it, there are the environmental types, for whom the main thing is that they are no longer going to be dependent on heavy polluting coal-fired energy or diesel fuel.
“Then for the handyman, it is about building that home and running and fixing everything yourself.
“For the anti-corporate type, it’s a bit of an opportunity to say “no” the utility, and be in control and independent.”
And for the thrifty type it’s a way to cut energy bills out of the equation and practice living more frugally.
But according to Vannini, out of the more than 200 people he spoke to, no particular type became the dominant one.
“So there are some stereotypes — but it’s always a complex answer. It’s a bit too romantic to say ‘I’m just going to go off the grid.’”
And that’s another interesting thing about the film – which is shot beautifully in some breathtakingly beautiful parts of Canada: It doesn’t, at all, romanticise the idea of going off grid.
Rather, you get the sense that it is a lifestyle, and maybe even an occupation. Certainly, it is no walk in the park.
“Some of these places were not lovely in a conventional sense,” Vannini says, noting that they were often in some of the most remote parts of Canada – many of them extremely cold in winter.
“In some places, it was intense and tough and uncomfortable. As one of the people in the documentary said, “this place is a pain”, but he loved it!
“It’s part of a broader way of enjoying life, but also working to enjoy life,” he says.
But even since the film was made, technology has advanced enough that this “work” could soon be taken out of our hands. Battery storage systems are becoming more sophisticated and easier to use, solar panels are getting ever cheaper and more efficient, and increasingly clever inverters now often designed to accommodate both.
And then there’s the new wave of smart energy management systems, or the “internet of things”, which mean that future off-gridders won’t necessarily need to watch their batteries like a hawk, or keep checking on their solar panels’ efficiency, or work out where to store excess solar energy, or when to run the dishwasher.
So does the arrival of advanced, cheap, set-and-forget technology mean more people will be moved to go off grid?
Vannini doesn’t think so.
“I don’t necessarily see more people going off the grid, but I definitely believe and hope that more people will use renewable technologies to be on the grid and to contribute to it,” he said.
Vannini, who sees many parallels between the energy markets in Canada and Australia – “the population size is very similar, both countries are immense… there’s a similar concentration of the population; we’re cuddling the US border, you’re cuddling the coast” – says in his country, a lot of people go off the grid in the north, just as you’d see a lot of people off-grid in the outback here – because they have no other choice, or because connecting to the existing grid is prohibitively expensive.
A couple of the people interviewed in the film told Vannini they wanted to connect with the grid – many had even been approached to do so by the local utility – but had found the process to be a regulatory minefield, and decided against it. Others said they would connect to the grid if they could.
“In the past, these communities in Canada had what were called tank farms,” explains Vannini; “when a boat would come and fill up these tanks with diesel and that would be their energy supply for the next six months.
“More and more of these communities are starting to switch to solar and wind. These are the places where so much difference can be made; where going off grid makes sense. It makes sense for these communities to be examples.”
But for the vast majority of the population, he adds, it does not make sense to go off grid. So what is the message of the film?
“My hope is that countries around the world can learn form the lessons we are drawing, and make it easier, and more convenient, for others wanting to use renewable energy,” Vannini said.
“This is a big issue, in Canada – we continue to subsidise fossil fuel based energy generation, and we … actually disincentivise renewable energy technologies.
“There are some exceptions,” he adds, naming the province of Ontario as one, with its policy allowing people to build large solar farms and sell electricity back to the grid, generating a second income for the family.
“But Ontario’s an exception.”
In a very vague way,” says Vannini, “documentaries like this one … and books as well, are showing people that this is not a strange technology; it can be operated relatively easy by everyone. And if your governments make it more affordable, it can be to everyone’s benefit.