Greens leader Richard Di Natale chose to go off-grid 10 years ago, largely because of the huge costs of connecting his then weekender and now family home to the grid. “It’s a great feeling to be able to convert the sun into useable energy.”
It’s hard to imagine Bill Shorten or Tony Abbott pulling up on a quad bike to greet visiting journos, but it’s how our morning with Green Party leader Richard Di Natale begins and ends. It’s also hard to imagine any other political party leader in Australia choosing to live off-grid.
Away from Canberra’s cameras and the de rigueur federal politician suit and tie outfit, Richard is clearly in his element, wearing a hoodie and work boots while riding around the picturesque 50 acre farm near Dean’s Marsh in the Otway Ranges that he shares with wife Lucy and young sons Luca and Ben.
Purchased originally as a weekender, the property is former dairy pasture which they’ve slowly reforested over the last decade and eventually made their full-time home, establishing an enviable hobby farm lifestyle; cows graze in one paddock, ducks and chooks roam the veggie patch, a fruit, grape and olive orchard stretches down the hill and pigs enjoy the shade of two magnificent old manna gums.
There’s a country chill in the air on the day we drop in to experience the Di Natale’s off-grid lifestyle and, despite plenty of sunshine, their back-up generator is humming, providing power to top up the state of charge (SoC) on their 16 amp 24 volt sealed gel-filled battery bank (the components of which are fully recyclable).
“Our batteries are ten years old now, so they’ll probably just see us through this winter and next summer, then we’ll replace them,” Richard explains. “During winter, we run the generator two or three times a week, but in summer never. There are nine months of the year when we just don’t need to worry about power at all.”
He explains that a combination of factors were the drivers for going off-grid when he and Lucy first built a small shed on the property. While their environmental beliefs and position on the use of renewable energy is obvious, the decision to take the property off-grid was also driven by economic factors.
“Being a rural area, the quote to connect to the electricity grid was $15,000 and that was ten years ago,” he explains. “It would have been a much bigger call to make if there hadn’t been that big up front cost, particularly because at that time the technology (to go off-grid) was expensive and a little more limited than it is now.”
“We were a little nervous about going off-grid in the sense that we weren’t sure how much maintenance the system would need and it was just another thing to think about when you’re busy already. You can’t just press a button and put the heater on, you have to think about the extra effort to run the house.”
“We had some early problems with the generator and battery charger, just because it was early technology, but it was always sorted out quickly by our installers. Sometimes it was a little frustrating, but we always got through it and as the technology has improved, things work a lot better.”
“Of course, as someone’s who committed to the environment and committed to sustainability, the idea of not having to rely on brown coal to generate power was very appealing to me and it’s a lovely feeling that we’re not contributing to another hole in the ground every time we flick a switch. It’s a great feeling to be able to convert the sun into useable energy.”
The small shed that was built as makeshift accommodation originally hosted a 1.2kW system, but was later expanded to meet the requirements of the Di Natale’s growing energy needs. It now serves as extra sleeping space for weekend gatherings when family and friends visit and the handmade brick and clay pizza oven is fired up.
“Because it was going to be a weekender, Lucy and I didn’t really plan ahead. Of course, we subsequently had kids, built the house and moved down here full time, so we added more panels, another 1.5 kW which cost us half the price of the originals, and replaced the old inverter with a new 4.5 kW inverter charger.”
“The gel batteries have been great, they don’t require any maintenance at all and we’ve never had any problems with them given we’ve flogged them pretty hard!. We try not to let the SoC drop below 70%, but occasionally it happens.”
Their corrugated iron clad home, a kit home delivered on the back of a truck, incorporated passive solar design principles on the Di Natale’s insistence and nestles nicely into the rolling landscape around Dean’s Marsh, with a wide wooden deck overlooking a nearby valley and bushland.
“I was very keen through the building process to maximise passive solar, so the house is double glazed, we have stone floors for a bit more thermal mass, we’ve upped the R-rating of the insulation, installed underfloor insulation and a few other things with a lot of through.”
The ‘other things’ include a worm farm septic system, several large water tanks, an outdoor bushfire sprinkler system and a solar hot water system with three panels that is backed by a water jacket on the back of the wood fire in the main living area.
“The biggest drawback of living off-grid is heating; we’ve always found it a bit difficult having anything that has a heating element in it. Having said that though, the passive solar design means that if there’s little bit of sun we don’t really need too much more help through winter. It really performs quite well for a prefab house.”
Richard says that despite the initial anxieties about maintenance, equipment upgrades and some other ‘mild annoyances’ he’d always choose to live off-grid.
“The bottom line is this is a modern house with all the modern appliances you’d expect to see and I don’t think people would even know it was off-grid. Even with two small children, we haven’t changed our lifestyle in a major way to life off-grid. A few small considerations here and there that can be a mild annoyance, but I’d always choose to go off-grid if I were to live elsewhere.”
“I think the secret to successful off-grid living is to work out what you think your energy requirements will be, but I’d urge caution and say that your current circumstances won’t necessarily be the same in future, so go for as big a system as you can afford at the time.”
Before we let Richard disappear off to plant more bare-rooted fruit trees in his espaliered orchard, he gives us some last comments on what excites him about the rapidly developing energy storage industry and how he sees it working for Australian households.
“Energy storage is exciting because it’s good for the planet. Going off-grid is a wonderful example of human ingenuity, but what lies underneath is that we’ve been able to generate power for all the thins we need at an individual level. At a population level, getting access to clean energy is a powerful tool for lifting people out of poverty, and if we can do that and look after the planet, I think that’s really exciting.” “I see an energy future that will be distributed. We currently have a technology that’s challenging the existing business model, it’s turning it on it’s head and threatening the big power companies who have been these centralised sources of power distributed across the nation. So we’ll start seeing a more decentralised model that will put control in the hands of the consumer who’ll be able to access battery storage and decided how and when they’ll access the grid and give them a lot more flexibility.”
The specs: The Di Natale’s off-grid system consists of a SP Pro 4.5kW inverter/charger with a set of 600 Amp hour gel batteries connected to a BP 80w Panels, with Sharp 175w panels added later to create a total of 2.5kw. They use a Honda Gentec Petrol generator on cloudy days to top up their battery state of charge. The system was installed by Radiant Energy.
Emma Sutcliffe is a Melbourne-based journalist and climate activist who is the proud owner of an off-grid property in the small town of Little River. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she gets to meet other people who have installed energy storage in their homes and businesses, a task which makes use of her considerable skills for nattering, drinking tea and admiring people’s decor. We invite you to contact her if you’d like to share your story.