Going off grid doesn’t necessarily mean a large solar system powering your entire home. Self-confessed ‘greenie’ Gavin Webber has applied technology on a smaller scale to help manage his productive permaculture garden on a normal suburban block in western Melbourne.
There’s a scene in the cult movie Blues Brothers when, standing in an evangelical church, Jake Blues (John Belushi) is hit with a beam of sunshine, and shouts “do you see the light?” before cartwheeling his way down the aisle to join James Brown’s preacher character in some pretty impressive footwork.
While Jake’s epiphany was to get the band back together to earn enough cash to bail out an orphanage’s tax debt, Gavin Webber’s mission is much simpler – and involved less dancing.
It was while watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth at a work-organised function, that Gavin realised he could, and wanted to, do more to help the planet, create a sustainable home and spread the message to others.
And it was at another work-organised activity that he found the time to embark on his self-appointed mission; while doing some charitable work with colleagues, the IT professional was carrying a hay bale when he was chased by a three-legged goat. The hay made it to the back of the truck in time, but Gavin himself suffered a slipped disk and was laid up for almost a year in chronic pain.
“I managed to get to the library and get every book I could about sustainability, growing your own food, energy storage, anything to reduce our family’s carbon footprint; there’s a wealth of information just at the local library,” says Gavin.
“My wife Kim suggested I start writing about what we were doing and blogs were just starting to become popular so I thought ‘why not?’” He also sat his family of six down and made them watch An Inconvenient Truth so they could understand his new-found passion for sustainability and join him as he dug up the lawn, built gardens beds and planted vegetables and fruit trees.
“For a while there I thought he was having an affair, he was so quiet and focused on things,” laughs Gavin’s wife Kim. “It was a relief to find out what was really going on!”
It’s no small feat that, since 2010, he’s reached over 2 million people on his blog – titled Greening of Gavin – and won several awards for his work and podcasts, all while holding down his day job.
In addition, the Webber’s have welcomed thousands of people to tour their garden and solar set up when they open the gates for National Sustainable House Day, visiting service groups or locals wanting to know more.
“Winning a sustainable blog competition was the start of my small off-grid system; the prize was two 110 watt solar panels which I used in parallel to keep the voltage constant, so they’re 12 volts but it gives me maximum wattage. I put them at a high pitch to get maximum sunlight and give them a good wash when it rains.”
“They’re connected by PV cable to an AGM (Absorbant Glass Mat) 105 amp hour, 12 volt battery bank in the garage with a controller that gives me information about when they float. The whole thing ended up costing me $800 roughly, to get all the bits and pieces and put it all together.”
“I had to do lots of research to put it together, but the inspiration was an article in Home Power magazine, which is an American publication kind of like Popular Mechanics but for solar nuts. On a sunny day, this system gives me 2kW hours a day so I can run the garden irrigation pump and my electric bike battery. I’ll even charge my phone out here as well.”
The Webber’s suburban block is a series of outdoor spaces with paths overgrown by parsley and mint linking an enclosed vegetable growing area with the pool deck, chook shed (known as Cluckingham Palace), a pizza oven and outdoor seating area and finally to the front yard in which olive and other fruit trees grow.
They’ve also been slowly installing double glazing, heavy drapes and extra insulation in the 1970’s brick veneer home to improve it’s energy rating. There is also a separate grid-connect solar system for the house, with 6 panels mounted on the garage roof.
“The house was quite open plan when we bought it and we didn’t like the layout, so have remodelled rooms over the years to be more able to contain heat,” said Gavin. “We originally had six of us living here, but now the older kids have grown up and moved out, there’s just the three of us (Gavin, wife Kim and son Ben).”
“With the house solar panels, we got in early with a 2.8kW system, so that feeds the house first and then back to the grid with a 66c per kW feed-in tariff,” Gavin explains.
“In summer the pool pump and air-conditioning use a reasonable amount of power so we’re pretty much at break even, in winter our last bill was around $50 and most of that was network charge. Our heating is gas, but with the double glazing and insulation it only worked out to around $16.”
Gavin’s passion for helping others create sustainable lifestyles led him to become a Climate Leader with the Al Gore founded Climate Reality Project, joining over 6000 other global leaders to share climate change information through free community presentations.
In addition, he and wife Kim have also commercialised their creativity by founding the Little Green Workshop series and online shop which teaches soap, candle and cheese making, something for which he’s become famous for, with his regular cheese-making followers known as ‘curd nerds’.
Talks and workshops aside, Gavin is excited about the uptake of energy storage in Australia in the context of climate change.
“I think people are waking up to climate change because they’re seeing all these advances in renewable energy. It’s got to be a driver, because otherwise the uptake of renewables wouldn’t be continuing. People are starting to get it, to understand the link between coal fired power stations and climate change and once they understand solar and energy storage they’ll start to live more sustainably which I think is great.”
Kim Webber, however, is more prosaic in her push for Australian’s leaders to promote the use of renewable energy. “We once had a picnic under a wind turbine near Waubra and I loved it, I think they’re so beautiful and powerful. It made me want to strap Gina Rinehart to one blade, Tony Abbott to the second and Joe Hockey to the third.”
The specs: The Webber’s standalone solar system consists of 2 x 110 watt solar panels connected to 2 x AGM 105 amp hour, 12 volt battery which gives them 2kW per day. The house has a grid-connect 2.8kW system with 16 x 175 watt panels mounted on the garage roof.
Emma Sutcliffe is a journalist, climate activist & proud owner of an off-grid property in Little River, near Melbourne. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she meets other off-gridders, a job that makes use of her considerable skills for nattering & drinking tea. If you’d like to share your story, she’d love to hear from you.