As the federal government touts the repeal of the carbon tax as a win for household energy bills, Australians are increasingly turning to renewable energy to save money. My family and I went one step further, going completely off-grid and finding that it didn’t compromise our lifestyle.
My favourite phone calls start like this.
“Hello madam, I’m calling to reduce your power bills.”
My answer, usually a detailed description of why the caller is wasting their breath, can be distilled into two sentences.
“My house isn’t connected to the grid,” I explain. “I won’t have an electricity bill for the next 15 years.”
Usually I’m met with disbelief; most think it’s a novel excuse to get rid of them, others are more forceful.
“That’s illegal,” one telemarketer earnestly assured me. “I can report you.”
I’m still waiting for the energy police to knock on the door, but, if they do, I’d be happy to show them around our own personal power station.
I’d point out the 30 panels on our north-facing garage roof, which connect to the two inverters mounted on an internal wall next to the mountain bikes and garden implements.
They’d admire my 24-cell battery bank contained within a neat plywood box complete with beautifully hinged sealing lid that my Dad, a former engineer, made for us.
In the house, we’d check the little electronic panel in the hallway that reads the current battery level which, on any averagely sunny Melbourne day, is usually at 100 per cent by lunchtime.
The truth is that living sans electricity grid is surprisingly simple.
When my husband and I bought our seven hectares of rocky clay in Little River, halfway between Melbourne and Geelong, we didn’t give any thought to power until we started to build in 2012.
The nearest power pole was over a kilometre away and a quote to install a new pole and connect power to our block came in at around $30,000, plus the costs of laying conduit-encased cable 400 metres up to the house site so the builder could fire up his nail gun.
Add ongoing quarterly power bills and it was tallying up to quite an expense; we were, after all, building a 38-square home for ourselves and two teenagers.
So began a search for an alternative which led us, via my parents’ plumber, to a couple of Geelong-based renewable energy gurus, Phil and John.
My first phone call to John was a confusing mish-mash of technical terms and questions about kilowatt hours, appliance energy efficiency ratings and absorbed glass mat battery banks.
However, it was clear that John knew what he was talking about, so I lined up a meeting and was given the address of his family home, a mud-brick four-bedroom house with composting toilets on four tree-lined hectares in Wensleydale.
After lunch cooked on a proper wood-fired Aga, we crawled under the house to inspect gel-filled batteries and the small shed containing the back-up generator.
By the time we brushed the cobwebs off, we were sold; John and his family were living electricity-bill free in a beautiful, comfortable home – and without a dreadlock or tie-dye T-shirt in sight.
After completing an electrical audit listing which energy-guzzling appliances we’d be using, our 22 kilowatts an hour per day power station was designed and installed for $60,090, with a $7500 government rebate.
For the first few months we kept a nervous eye on the available power, but the anxiety soon wore off as the batteries hit 100 per cent almost every day.
Our first winter in the house had so few days of cloud cover that we postponed installing the back-up generator; we didn’t need it and we still don’t have one.
The maintenance required to keep the liquid electrolyte battery bank happy amounted to a quarterly top-up with demineralised water and ensuring tiny amounts of emitted hydrogen vented properly.
In two years, there have been a handful of days when we’ve been, unnecessarily, nervous about our available power, however a few hours with the TV switched off has been good for both the batteries and our square-eyed family unit.
Of course, it’s not for everyone, this off grid-goodness, especially given the upfront cost which we added to our mortgage and pay interest on.
It’s been difficult to work out whether we’ll be saving money in the long term, as somewhere around 2027 our battery bank will need replacing at significant cost.
However, with battery prices falling, we’re hopeful it won’t outweigh what we’d have saved on energy bills for the previous 15 years.
Whatever the monetary outcome, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s a wonderful feeling, this knowledge that we’re naturally harvesting energy while giving the metaphorical finger to the fossil fuel industry, climate change sceptics and a federal government seemingly intent on shutting down the renewables industry.
We’re just an average family hoping that our experience without an overhead power line prompts the type of conversations I enjoy having with people.
Especially those energy company telemarketers.
Emma Sutcliffe is a Melbourne writer. http://theoffgridsolarhouse.com/