Two men from British Columbia were in Central Alberta recently talking with people who live ‘off the grid’.
Dr. Phillip Vannini, professor in the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C. and Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Public Ethnography is working on a three-year federally funded fieldwork project.
Vannini, along with student Jonathan Taggart are tackling a project which focuses on documenting the lives of individuals, families, and communities who live off-grid.
“The purpose is to understand how people who generate and utilize renewable technologies live their day-to-day life,” said Vannini. “We define off-grid broadly, as a state of disconnection from the infrastructures that power and fuel our life. Most people who live off-grid are, at least, off the electricity grid and natural gas pipelines, as well as other infrastructures.”
He added Red Deer is a “hot spot” in Alberta for off-grid living.
“We are visiting the Edmonton area, the Grande Prairie area, the Calgary area, and the Red Deer area. We have found the most off-gridders in the Red Deer area. Though no one can say for sure.”
The duo has traveled throughout B.C., the Yukon, and Alberta and will continue to travel across the country aiming to wrap up their fieldwork in the summer of 2013.
Vannini said they have met many motivated people who strive to live lives off the grid.
“People are ‘motivated’ to live off-grid by values of self-sufficiency, independence, simplicity, sustainability, and resilience in varying degrees. Some do it also because they enjoy the challenge. Some do it also because they enjoy not paying utility bills or do it because they have chosen to live in a remote community/place where the grid is not sufficiently close enough, thus, it would cost them a lot of money to stretch pole lines or pipelines to their property,” he said. “Those with whom we have spoken enjoy it tremendously also because it allows them, often, to live in remote locations where they enjoy silence and tranquility.”
Vannini added although living off the grid can be sustainable, it’s often a lot of work.
“Besides basic know-how which helps with maintenance and the occasional repair, it helps to be informed about how energy works. It’s also a lot of work because you and I just flick a switch on and there goes the light we need to see in the dark. You and I don’t need to worry about cloud cover or wind speed or water flow in the creek behind our house before operating appliances, but if you live off-grid, you do need to be in tune with the environment around you.
“You need to think about whether you need to flush or to let it mellow. You need to chop wood if you want to keep warm. You need to, in the case of those off the highway grid, keep the road to your house clear of snow, or perhaps you need to keep your boat in working order. So, the point is that it requires involvement and awareness of the place around you and the resources available. Living off-grid puts you in closer touch with the environment and with the resources your life requires. It makes you more aware of what, and how much, you consume. Your dead batteries can serve as a powerful reminder you consume too much.”
He added the study is important because people rely on power too much.
“In many places, like Alberta, resources for that power are neither renewable nor clean. We have become accustomed to comforts and conveniences that historically, and geographically, make us nothing but spoiled brats. Do we need to keep lights on in rooms that are not occupied? Do we need large houses that are constantly kept warm enough so we can wear t-shirts in the winter? Do we need to recharge our batteries or power an LCD screen for every single act of communication? Let’s face it, most of us have lost basic skills, like drying clothes on a line,” said Vannini. “To document people who live off-grids is a way of documenting people who are re-teaching themselves the skills it takes to be more self-sufficient and less wasteful. To share these skills through our documentation — a book, film, photography, articles, media appearances, etc. is not only a way of sharing useful information, but also a way of showing that it’s not that hard to be mindful of our energy consumption, and that life is quite rewarding when you do that.”
He said it is certainly possible to live ‘off grid’ but it would be an adjustment.
“It helps to have a bit of an initial capital investment to buy the basic systems, for example, photovoltaic, wind turbine or wood stove and it helps to become educated about energy. It’s often a radical adjustment in one’s life. I’ve had people tell me that they think twice about using a blow-dryer or a vacuum cleaner on a cloudy day because they are a large electrical draw.
“So the adjustment is that one needs to go from a condition of mindlessness to a condition of mindfulness. Once you are mindful, and practice the required conservation, life tends to be less hurried, quieter, and more peaceful. And you might even learn how to make toast without a toaster! So it’s self-empowering.”
He added living ‘off grid’ is not a universal solution.
“I am certainly not encouraging everyone to get off-grids. Pooling resources and creating grids that are powered or fueled by renewable resources often makes sense in places where the population is more concentrated. In cities, for example, it would seem to make more sense to be grid-tied and feed excess clean energy back to the grid,” said Vannini. “And I’ll add that being off-the-grid is not always a choice. Members of First Nations located in remote areas are often off-grid and therefore often are dependent on expensive, dirty diesel generators. We document those lifestyles too, and we are learning that there are First Nations, like the T’Souke First Nation on Vancouver Island, that are now ‘farming’ solar electricity and becoming more environmentally sustainable utilizing old traditional teachings about place and the role of humans in nature.”