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Oxford resident embraces two-generation environmental, educational opportunity

Off-the-grid solar living becoming increasingly accessible

Living off the grid is certainly not for everyone. But it is becoming increasingly accessible for those who are interested in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly option.

“If you can, why wouldn’t you consider it?” asked Lindsay Tribe rhetorically.

Oxford resident Lindsay Tribe (centre), Craig Cook (left) and Al Towers (right).

The Oxford County resident took the plunge in conjunction with development of a hazelnut orchard. The distance of its associated residence from existing power lines and the potential cost of connecting to Hydro One transmission opened the door to discussion on a stand-alone option.

It was furthered by access to an inexpensive family labour source and the supportive, consultative expertise of Craig Cook and Al Towers. The latter are connected geographically and philosophically through Clear Creek-area off-the-grid earthship residential living.

Earthships are the brainchild of visionary architect Michael Reynolds, so named because like a ship upon the ocean, they are essentially self-sustaining entities. In very general terms earthships are bermed structures with exterior walls formed of discarded tires pounded full of earth into the rough equivalent of highly-insulated building blocks. They feature 60-degree-angled south-facing windows aligned perpendicular to the winter solstice which absorb the sun’s energy into interior thermal mass during the day, releasing it gradually into an environment requiring very little supplemental heat. Rainwater is harvested, stored and recycled and interior walls traditionally feature either recycled bottles or cans.

Craig and wife Connie’s journey toward sustainable living began by supplementing grid connectivity with homemade wind turbines at their previous residence near Cornell. They fully embraced environmental friendliness and early retirement in part through construction of their 3,000-square-foot earthship at a material cost of $70,000 and the additional financial savings off-the-grid living represents. Their journey is shared on the website:

Towers and wife Sally live up the road a kilometre or so in their own version of an earthship, Towers possessing complementary electrical expertise. Both couples supply their full hydro needs with solar-powered off-the-grid systems. Tribe’s components were sourced through Craig Cook, and his and Towers’ combined support was invaluable.

Her system begins with 16 south-facing 400-watt solar panels mounted on a wooden frame anchored by pressure-treated 6-by-6-inch posts Cook feels are more secure than pre-fabricated metal options. The panels are connected in series through a combiner box and the resultant DC power transmitted via an underground cable into an inverter, located within a dedicated inside room. Power passes through a charge controller which displays and logs generation performance and on through the inverter to a 48-volt battery bank, still as DC power. It is stored there and accessed back through the inverter again for conversion to AC, and onward via another buried cable into the residence’s electrical panel.

A generator stands by as insurance in case of low solar generation. It’s linked to come on automatically, both powering the house’s immediate demand and charging the batteries when levels fall to a defined point, ensuring a consistently-available power supply, day or night.

The Cooks’ earliest off-the-grid forays involved multiple components and a freezer full of batteries linked with flattened copper pipe, a combination one might approach with a mixture of bewilderment and caution. Technology has advanced significantly however in the past couple of decades, resulting in higher performance efficiencies and hugely-simplified combined components. It is not as easy as putting together a lego kit, but far more attainable than historically.

Costs have fallen to the point it was a financially competitive, even advantageous alternative in Tribe’s circumstances. The initial outlay is significant, but if one is able to do work oneself, monthly hydro bill savings can represent an ROI of between five and ten per cent, decent performance compared to many investment options. Generator fuel and system maintenance are required including regular battery fluid level monitoring and the necessity of sweeping snow off solar panels following a storm. There definitely was also a sense of heading into uncharted waters, although the Cooks’ and Towers’ shared demonstrated experience was helpful encouragement.

Cost was a factor for Tribe, but so too was the chance to take advantage of advancing technology. She has learned the difference between good and poor generating days as well as the irony that winter, the highest consumption due to heating requirements, also features the shortest days and solar production. But she has also found satisfaction in the ‘magic’ of solar power generation, electrical independence and the opportunity to not only embrace a more sustainable option lowering her family’s environmental impact, but exposing her children and their contemporaries to alternative possibility.

“It has been a learning curve,” she summed up. “But I couldn’t be happier.” 

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