Plugged into Nature’s Grid

By Tooker Gomberg, Killaloe, Ontario.

Living in a forest powered by the sun has benefits when the electricity grid fails. (Originally published in NOW Magazine.)

Killaloe – I’m sitting in a cabin in the woods in eastern Ontario, surrounded by 50 million people without electricity. Luckily, we have some juice. Our house is a power plant. We get our wattage from the sun, 93 million miles away. Three solar panels on the roof transform sunlight into power to run a computer, a radio and sometimes a flashlight. Anything left over goes into batteries. Not that we have oodles of watts. If it’s cloudy for a few days running we have to stop typing. And we don’t use much power – no electric dishwashers or plug-in can openers here.

Living off the grid has taught us to survive without a fridge or freezer, the biggest household users of electricity. We have a small cooler and every few days add chunks of ice that we pick up from town. The big challenge is keeping the coffee cream from going sour. Fresh veggies come from the garden, herbs from the forest. Bulk goods are stored in glass jars, away from the prying chops of Chippy, our resident chipmunk.

Living at a slower pace, without TV or VCR, wasn’t hard to get used to. Neither was cooking on a wood stove or tromping to the outhouse in the brisk morning air. On the contrary, the calm and serenity of our motor-free summer is joyous. But I must confess that I’m still not used to surfing the Net on a sluggish dial-up.

Once or twice a week we pedal into town to pick up bulk groceries. The 40-minute ride through the green hills exercises our legs and lungs. We’re told it’s a lot harder to live in this house in winter — you have to feed the stove on a constant basis. On the other hand, the frigid air makes it easier to keep foods cold.

Radio reporters warn people to conserve water because the reservoirs only have a 24-hour supply. We know we’ll be all right so long as we eat breakfast and have the energy to pump water from the communal well. We then haul that water on the back rack of our bicycles to our humble abode. We gave up on hot baths months ago, opting instead for a daily dive in the pond alongside the dragonflies and frogs. Occasionally, we treat ourselves to a luxurious lather in our neighbour’s solar-heated shower.

Much of our energy comes from the food we grow on the farm, and the energy to grow a tomato comes from the sun for free. We may not be on the electricity grid, but surely we’re connected to nature’s grid.

The European Union already has a campaign to produce a million-roof solar program, and so does the U.S. One in 10 households in Japan has solar installations. Isn’t it time that the sun is harnessed in Canada, too? While we’re at it, let’s follow Denmark’s and Germany’s lead and invest massively in wind power.

Everyone can wait out a power outage and then return to cranking up the air-con and turning up the TV, hoping it all goes away. Or we could pick up the phone, put pen to paper, or tap a keyboard and let our premier know: not a penny more for fossil fuels and nuclear.