Off the grid

Green energy: Maree Handy's solar-powered cottage has attracted plenty of attention.
Green energy: Maree Handy's solar-powered cottage has attracted plenty of attention.

Maree Handy's solar-powered house has attracted plenty of attention. Reporter Fleur Cogle discovers what it's like to live off the grid.

Fairlie shepherd Maree Handy loves coming home at the end of the day.

Her two-year-old cottage nestles at the foot of a hill down a gravel road, and from her deck she has a terrific view of Fairlie, of farm land, of mountains.

Also in sight, if you know where to look, is a green power pole nearly a kilometre down the road. It marks a terminal point for the national power grid.

It was her property's distance from this power pole, and her desire for independence, that inspired Ms Handy to make a choice many might be envious of: she decided to build off the grid.

"I wanted to live independently off the grid ... I had been talking to other people and they had said how expensive it was [to connect to the grid]. I just thought `bugger them'."

Ms Handy bought a section of land from an acquaintance two years ago and had a Christchurch firm construct and transport a three-bedroom cottage to the site.

But when it came to connecting her house, Ms Handy was quoted between $25,000 and $30,000 to hook up to the national power grid.

The cost got her wondering about the alternatives. After a little research she was surprised to discover practically on her doorstep a Timaru company, SmartEnergy, specialising in creating alternative energy systems.

It was the start of a firm friendship.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about a house that has attracted so much attention is just how normal it looks.

If you miss the array of four large solar panels set up in the garden when you pull up outside the cottage, it might be difficult to detect anything out of the ordinary. Six smaller solar panels on the roof are cunningly designed to look like skylights; the powerhouse which protects the system's electronic hardware and deep-cycle batteries could be any old garden shed.

After making the decision to go with her own generated-power supply, Ms Handy's next step was to conduct an audit of her power usage.

Measuring a household's power consumption is a vital part of working out what a power system will need; underestimating consumption can lead to power supply problems later on.

Together with the firm, Ms Handy examined ways she could reduce her power use before working out what her system would require to produce enough power for her needs.

Then the renewable resources available on her property were assessed.

These days power from sunlight, wind and water can all be harnessed; mini hydro-generators can be set up on some streams. Get enough wind regularly across a property and a mini-wind generator may work.

Obviously, there are geographical and physical constraints to wind and hydro generation, but most properties can make use of solar power.

Sunlight falling on panels in her garden is converted to energy which is stored in 16 deep-cycle batteries. From the batteries, power flows through an inverter to regulate it, then on to the house.

Another important part of Ms Handy 's system is a diesel-powered generator.

The generator is necessary. Although sunlight is a reliable source of renewable power, the weather is an unpredictable variable and a run of bad weather can reduce the amount of power produced.

The generator isn't there just to provide backup power it's an essential part of preserving the life of the batteries which store the power.

There's potential for things to go wrong if she does not take care of her system's components. Allowing the batteries that store the energy to discharge below 48 per cent can be disastrous for the life of the battery.

The batteries aren't cheap, and if you lose one, they must all be replaced.

Ms Handy's solar system is fully automated electronic hardware monitors the batteries. When there hasn't been enough sunlight to power the batteries, the generator kicks in.

Her powerhouse is located in her garden, under the solar panel array. The small moveable garden shed houses a set of deep-cycle batteries, as well as an inverter and a charge converter which regulate the flow of electricity. A small monitor indicates how much power is stored in the batteries, but short of keeping an eye on the readout, maintenance is minimal: checking the diesel is topped up is a daily chore, keeping the battery water levels up and the panels clear.

For a long time a fanciful dream, the idea of being energy self-sufficient has moved beyond the realms of imagination; but although many people like the idea, the reality is the project doesn't come without costs. And whatever reasons motivate a person to go off the grid, the move can't be done without committing to some lifestyle changes.

Electricity is not wasted; lights are not left on, her television and stereo are not left on standby; she does not have an electricity-guzzling dishwasher. But they aren't large changes and living in a solar-powered house does not mean sacrificing modern appliances.

"You are making a commitment. It's not hard to [turn the lights off]. Really, it's just a matter of being conscientious.

"I wouldn't say it's restrictive. I don't find it difficult to live without a dishwasher."

Her solar power system has even been designed to cope when her three adult daughters turn up for the holidays.

Her kitchen includes European touches both modern and old-fashioned.

A Wamsler (a German woodburning cooker) takes up one corner. As well as being used for cooking, it heats her water and radiators dotted throughout the house. She had no trouble heating her house in winter.

Next to the Wamsler are a gas cooker and a microwave. She imported her fridge/freezer unit from Europe, choosing the unit for its energy efficiency.

"I know it was expensive but it was worth it."

Ms Handy's solar panel system cost her about $50,000 - more than the cost of hooking up to national grid and there are additional running costs. The on-going cost of diesel, for one.

But despite the extra expense, she has no regrets and, in the long run, the move will save her, or whoever inherits her house, she says.

"[Power's] going up all the time," she notes. The more expensive regular electricity becomes, the faster her system pays for itself.

She also believes the system will ultimately add value to her house.

"I believe it will add value to my house because more and more people are looking to be independent off the grid."

The large solar panels should last about 40 years; the batteries, with proper care, should last about 10.

And the system is modular, meaning she can add more panels to it. Ms Handy remains in contact with Smart Energy and plans to expand her power-producing capacity.

"The place has got the potential to be more eventually I can reduce the use of the generator."

Although her independence from the national grid protects her from the types of outages which affect faulty transformers, she is not immune from the occasional power outage.

"I do [get them] but usually it's when the generator has run out of diesel and I have forgotten to fix it up."

Ms Handy does not describe herself as an ardent greenie. Her decision to go with solar power was motivated as much by economics as by ideals, but she admits producing her own power is a source of pride. "At the end of the day I actually really like sitting out there looking at my own powerhouse."

The Timaru Herald