To connect to the grid it would have cost him $250,000 plus monthly bills. He figured there was no point living under the thumb of debt when electricity falls from the sky. Barrett’s system is composed of wind turbines that came in an easy-assembly kit, 24 solar panels and a generator in case of emergency. With everything included, his system cost him $60,000. It costs him $2.00 to buy 300 gallons of water in bulk. Barrett says, he isn’t getting his energy for free, he just paid for 30 years of it up front. Over 30 years, the average North American citizen spends $91,560 on energy. Barrett saved $31,560.
Contrary to the belief that most off-grid enthusiasts are chasing the heels of a sort of Chris McCandless idealism, most are far from ascetics. Out of the 200 people Vannini met, only three didn’t have Internet. When relying on your own knowledge to keep the heat on, the Internet can be a vital organ. The message is simple; technology is not the enemy. The root word for technology, techne, was the ancient Greek word for art. The ancient Greeks didn’t separate the human capacity for creativity into categories. Those who choose to live off-grid embody this; a profound life is a work of architecture. From Dave, a Lasqueti Island environmentalist who built his home using mud as its structure and existing bedrock as its foundation for just $1,000 and cooks his meals in a sun oven to Barrett, whose house is filled with the latest energy-efficient gadgets, technology is reflective of—not oppressive to—imagination.
Vannini is standing on his deck, skin washed in sun as coastal birds circle overhead creating silhouettes on the wooden panels at his feet.
“It’s not just about changing your lifestyle. It’s about changing how you think. I visited a school in a town that was completely off-grid due to its remoteness. Children there couldn’t understand how someone could pick up your garbage for you at the end of your driveway. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen children arguing about the energy efficiency of their televisions yelling, ‘my LCD screen TV uses less kilowatt hours than yours!’”
For many, going off-grid is not about escapism. Actually, it’s quite the opposite; it’s about taking responsibility for their own footprints. And environmental accountability is a dirty job. It means disposing of your own shit by grabbing a shovel and finding a place to dump a wheelbarrow.
The reality is that those who manage to last more than a year understand that the glamour of the off-grid lifestyle is an illusion that dissipates with the stink lines rising from your shovel. As Karl from Lasqueti Island, a British Columbia community where all residents are completely off-grid, puts it in the newly-released documentary Life Off Grid, “Everyone comes out here with a dream. Either they change that dream after the first four months or often they don’t stick around.”
Judy and Jim moved to a 150-acre property on Prince Edward Island with the dream of running a successful eco-tourism lodge. They built a small cottage above the jagged red Atlantic coast. What they didn’t anticipate was tourist season lasting only the two summer months of the year. Their bookings became scattered. Then they made a common mistake—they both accepted nine to five jobs; Judy, as a cook and Jim as a security guard on a local farm. Beat after long days, they would arrive home to more work—cutting wood for the furnace, tending to their two horses, maintaining their energy system, and emptying the outhouse. Sleep-deprived with a leaking bank account, the couple began to feel that it wasn’t they who owned the property. It was beginning to feel like the property owned them. In their fourth year, they relapsed back into modern society. Last time they talked, Judy told Vannini that she was “just excited to have a real stove again.”