Across Europe and North America, more and more people are deciding to give up their dependence on public services such as water, gas and electricity to live and work independently. And they do for some different reasons – a desire to connect with nature, be more self-sufficient, save energy or generally lead a more sustainable lifestyle are just a few.
In the Netherlands, this form of living is increasingly seen as an attractive and feasible option; there is an entire thread devoted to self-sufficient living in the r/Netherlands subredditand in 2016, the Netherlands became home to the first high-tech off-grid pilot ecovillage, developed by ReGen Villages.
“When COVID hit, there was an exodus from urban areas almost overnight. People wanted to move to the suburbs or the countryside because they wanted to feel like they could support themselves,” says founder James Ehrlich.
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ReGen developed “Village OS” software, which not only uses machine learning to design and plan off-grid neighborhoods, but also acts as a local server that monitors the village’s infrastructure for risks and improvements. This “digital twin,” Ehrlich tells TNW, can “understand the different power flows, if you will, in the neighborhood.”
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Ehrlich knows how to develop off-grid communities that will house 400-500 homes, and how to plan the different systems that come into play regarding food, electricity, and water, so it’s pretty safe to say he’s an expert in off grid living. We asked him: How can the average tech guy live off-grid?
When it comes to actually powering your off-grid home, there are a few different options.
First, Ehrlich tells TNW, whether you’re retrofitting your traditional home to make it less reliant on public utilities or building a house from scratch, it’s worth exploring ways to improve energy efficiency.
Your typical Dutch terraced house, made of brick, is an energy sieve. But by adding south-facing glazing to the back, such as a small sunroom connected to the back of the house, you can improve the R-value [or insulation] of the house in general. It generates heat that returns to the house and provides a little humidity, which is very pleasant during the dry winters. You can grow things there, it’s a wonderful place to sit, to drink coffee, tea, whatever.
Perhaps one of the most common and increasingly affordable off-grid energy sources is solar photovoltaic (PV) or solar panels. With solar panels you can capture sunlight, convert it into electricity and store it in a battery.
“Solar voltaic energy is something that many people use as a supplement to power their home, as well as a means to power their electric vehicle,” says Ehrlich. “There are now several companies that have this kind of battery storage, so the technology will continue to improve. This means [people living off-grid are] able to reduce their overall energy consumption.”
But solar panels aren’t the only option, nor are they the best for regions that don’t see much sunlight (ahem, the Netherlands).
“People who live in a moderately windy area could put up a small wind turbine that doesn’t vibrate and doesn’t make a lot of noise,” says Ehrlich. “They are slightly more expensive and the efficiency is not quite there yet, but they are getting better. The point is that they can supplement battery storage if you don’t get much sun.”
In recent years, a slew of clever composting technology has also emerged that are far less smelly.
If you’re considering wind turbines, it’s worth checking out local government guidelines such as the Checklist from the United States Department of Energywhich asks questions such as if your area gets enough wind, if there is enough physical space around you, and if towers are allowed in your area.
“Wind turbine technologies are getting better and better, smaller, blade-free and noise-free, and easy to fold up in case of a storm or bad weather,” says Ehrlich.
Electric vehicles themselves can also be used as a power source by acting as bi-directional chargers. Many EVs including different Kia modelsare V2D compatible, meaning they act like large batteries that can power electronic devices from an internal or external outlet.
Other types of bidirectional chargers include V2G (EVs that export energy to support power grids), V2H (EVs that can power homes), and V2L (EVs that can power appliances or other EVs). For example, the Kia EV9 due to launch in 2023 will feature vehicle-to-grid (V2G) functionality, meaning your car can export energy to the grid when demand is high.
Food and waste
Off-grid living can also extend to creating a self-sufficient source of food. In fact, one of the first inspirations for ReGen Villages came from Ehrlich’s encounter with a biodynamic farming community.
I stumbled upon this beautiful Northern California community of organic, biodynamic family farmers on small lots and started learning about ecovillages. These beautiful, small communities had essentially cobbled together passive home technology connected to heat exchange with early solar panels, solar thermal, and other things like biowaste, anaerobic digestion, biomass, and biogas. I was really amazed at the resilience these measures can maintain and the delicious food produced on site.
For ReGen Villages, Ehrlich has developed a system that relies on “a combination of no-plough tillage, with at least one to two meters of good topsoil [and] permaculture, which essentially creates an entirely edible neighborhood. You replace the foliage with things you can eat whenever possible.
Over time, these orchards and food forests really start to produce and overproduce. We combine that with farming in controlled environments, heated greenhouses or unheated greenhouses, depending on where in the world we are. In addition, we also add aquaponic and aquaculture systems, freshwater shrimp and various fish species.”
Boiling water is slow and inefficient when you consider how much you need each day.
For a person who wants to move off-grid but doesn’t want to join an ecovillage, the same principles apply, according to Ehrlich: “We strongly encourage people to replace their lawn whenever possible so that it can carry food.” This also has a major social impact. “If enough people do it, you start a dialogue with your neighbors about what you produce, what you have extra and what they have extra. We see that in our community.”
Ehrlich also mentions “light animal farms,” such as chicken coops, a single cow, or smaller herds and herds of sheep, goats, and turkeys — and not just as a source of food.
The animal waste is actually a food and nutrition source for vermiculture. Anaerobic digestion begins. You also get heat and energy from the anaerobic digestion that is produced by compost heaps. In addition, larvae of the black soldier fly and water worms eat their own weight in food and animal waste every day. They then become the perfect food for the chickens, fish and other small animals. So it’s really an amazing circle of life.
For individuals looking to go off-grid, there are traditional composting methods, but in recent years there have also been many smart composting consumer technology that is much less smelly and can be brought indoors or in urban environments.
Having access to clean water is an incredibly important aspect of off-grid living and, well, basic survival.
While boiling water can help purify water, it’s slow and inefficient when you consider how much water you need each day to stay hydrated, bathe, and more.
There are plenty of consumer-oriented water filtration systems that remove viruses, bacteria, and pathogens, in all different price ranges. Different blogs about off-grid living have reviews of different ones water filtration methods and equipment.
An off grid future
As Ehrlich points out, many of these off-grid systems and technologies have actually been around for a long time:
When my father was a kid in the early 1930s, he vividly remembered electric vehicles being used in New York City to deliver ice cream, and as taxis and small buses. But there were very powerful interests that didn’t want people to potentially generate their own power, drive their own vehicles, and have no need for oil changes, tune-ups, etc.
Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, once said:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, you build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
As consumer hardware continues to evolve and communities like ReGen Villages make life without a power supply more normal, a future without a power supply is not as far out of reach as we might think.