Clever thinking about off-grid houses in the city from two women who know heaps more than me

by | Dec 26, 2021 | Building/Design

I met Kirsten Jacobsen and Ashton Wolfe of Eco Living Matrix through our mutual contact, Melissa Lind. At the time I was struggling to find a solution for my water recycling and Melissa suggested I speak to these two knowledgeable women.

Kirsten and Ashton met when they were both working at Earthship Biotecture, a company in Taos, New Mexico, founded by eco legend Michael Reynolds. The Smithsonian mag wrote a great article about him, do yourself a favour.

At different times Kirsten and Ashton both owned houses in the Earthship community. Kirsten has lived off grid now for 27 years, and Ashton for 6 years. Ashton has sold her earthship and purchased another home that she’s retrofitting to be off grid. (Unlike me, she chose a house that is fit for the task, i.e., good orientation, suitable materials. I told you they were smarter than me!)

Images of Ashton’s retrofitted off grid house which she now rents out.

So I called them up

Here I was with my little cottage, trying to go off grid in Newtown, Sydney. I rang them and they were very excited for me and my project, because it’s quite rare in their experience.

In the US, there aren’t many off-grid houses in the middle of the city; they’re usually in rural areas because most cities’ building codes require that you hook into the mains. There was an Earthship in the Sky proposed for a vacant block in Manhattan, NYC, but it’s still a pipe dream.

We’ve chatted a few times since then, and they agree that an inner-city off-grid house build isn’t going to be easy. (ImPossible even!!)

We also agree that perceptions need to change about sustainable houses in the city.

There isn’t just one model of off-grid living, and it can be comfortable and affordable

Out in the world there are these preconceived notions about building off-grid houses. As Ashton says, “No-one thinks of it as being a comfortable way of living; or if it is, they think it’s way too expensive for them, which isn’t true.”

Kirsten and Ashton believe there are lots of different, practical ways you can still have all those things that we’re used to – a washer and dryer, and oven, and have hot water, a flat screen TV, and surround sound – but still not be connected to the mains.

At the moment they’re working on a book and an online curriculum on off-grid building for beginners. They want to educate people on all the different options for the spectrum of off-grid living, including but not specific to earthships.

“The earthship is just one option,” Ashton says. “Some people can afford that, they like the aesthetic and can get a permit for it, and their climate is right for it. But we’re also exploring what you can do in hot climates, or where it’s not sunny and you still want to be able to control the temperature in your off-grid house.”

I can vouch for the fact that it’s pretty overwhelming when you first start looking at going off grid. There are literally thousands of products and systems and options. Kirsten and Ashton are trying to gather all those ideas and present them in one place, so people can tailor their own building. “Choose your own adventure”, as Ash describes it.

Then there’s this perception that the grid is more reliable

In the US, like here, lots of people can’t understand why you’d choose to build an off-grid house, especially with electricity, in the city. Why would you invest in solar and batteries, when you can just plug into the grid? Isn’t it cheaper and easier and more reliable to plug into what’s already there?

That’s really not a valid argument anymore. As Kirsten points out, the US grid isn’t reliable.

“It’s aging, and when you need it most, when there’s a heatwave, and people need to turn the air conditioner on, the grid goes down,” she says.

“We have droughts, and then the dams that provide water and hydroelectric power for people go down. In a city you want to be autonomous even more than in the middle of nowhere, so you can have some security and safety while other things are starting to crumble around you, as seems to happen when a grid goes down in a major urban area.”

Then there are bushfires and other climate events. Grids are vulnerable because they’re so interconnected. And when you consider the power outages we’ve had in Australia caused by bushfires, storms and tornados, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without power, it makes me even more determined to be independent. I want energy security, I don’t want to rely on the grid, as I’ve said on my Solar page.

This is another very powerful argument against us all being on the grid

And that’s the weight of resources we need to build and maintain these systems. Kirsten reminded me of the example of Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) in the US. They’ve had major problems with downed power lines causing fires so they’re now going to bury 10% of their power lines. It’s going to take them 10 years and cost US$30bn. Couldn’t that money be better spent on taking the customers farthest from the power lines off grid?

Also, when you talk about power, you’re burning coal or natural gas, or you’ve got nuclear etc. – “all of those sources can be very problematic,” Ashton says.

But then, if you build a smart grid, wind and sun aren’t as reliable as firing up coal or natural gas. So you need to have batteries to translate that unreliability into a reliable power source.

As Ash says, “The smart grid is trying to place battery banks at the end of transformers, so they’re storing and collecting solar and wind energy to be used at night, and disbursed. But it’s so much easier to do it for one house at a time. There are so many resources going into maintaining this web that has a lot of vulnerabilities.”

Also, as Kirsten points out, the way renewable energy is being developed and pitched in the US is still as a grid-based model. “These big solar arrays and wind farms need more cables laid to get that power where it needs to go, to get distributed,” she says.
“We just think it’s insane. This is a more than 100-year-old way to get lights to your house.”

Be like a cell phone

Kirsten and Ashton advocate for a cellular or modular approach, because it’s less vulnerable to power outages and cyberattacks.

What they’re encouraging us to do is be like a cell phone. Be totally disconnected from the wires and responsible for your own charge and usage, and be autonomous. “It’s so much more resilient that way,” Kirsten says.

Plus there are voltage drops, so any kind of any kind of power you’re producing, even if it’s from the sun, you’re losing a percent of it through the lines. It’s an inherently wasteful system, she believes.

Speaking as someone who’s lived both off grid and on grid, Ashton says there is a sense of security and control that you get off grid.

“If my power went out there was something I could do about it. I’d check if the solar array was switched off, I could see what’s going on, whether there’s an issue I could help with,” she says.

Also, why should we always be relying on the government?

Like Kirsten and Ashton, I definitely don’t think we should always be relying on the government, or on other people to do things for us.

If we were all collecting our own sunlight, our own water on our own little space, and we dealt with our own waste, then all of that infrastructure that’s being built, that needs chemicals and steel and electricity, and pumping this from here to here – all of that goes away if you deal with your own space and problem.

Not to mention taxes wouldn’t be as high. We’re paying for that infrastructure.

And as Ashton pointed out, we wouldn’t have utility bills either. We wouldn’t be paying power companies and water companies.

But then how would these big utility companies keep generating their profits?

As Kirsten sees it, there’s green to be made in the green industry, if companies choose to pursue that technology. “These large oil companies put more money into researching how to better burn oil or make plastics, than they do into making renewable power sources. It’s this ‘clinging onto the sinking ship’ model. There are other opportunities.”

Oil companies and the energy industry are also heavily subsidised. “If it really were equal, if oil and the grid were no longer subsidised, we would see the real cost of these things,” Ashton says.

If more people then opted for solar, the solar manufacturers and battery manufacturers would supplant the energy companies we have today, which is more of a technology sector. That makes more sense to Ashton.

“We need better batteries and solar panels. They’d be the winning company that makes money and the consumer wins,” she says.

Look out for Ashton and Kirsten’s book in coming months. And check out their website, Eco Living Matrix.