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Vivre hors réseau :  réflexions personnelles

Cela fait plus de 30 ans que nous habitons dans ce magnifique environnement de forêts, de monts, de lacs, de faune et de flore.  Peu de gens souhaiteraient de faire les choix que nous avons faits.  Mais qu’arriverait-il si nous choisissions tout de dire simplement « non », si nous abandonnions notre foi à la consommation et que nous choisissions à sa place une philosophie de frugalité créative?

Qu’est-ce qui est nécessaire à nos vies et quelles choses peut-on abandonner tout en vivant d’une façon pratique et confortable?  Nous en sommes venus à la conclusion que vivre une vie simple et relativement frugale est beaucoup plus un don de libération qu’un fardeau de privations.



Living off the Grid:
Personal Reflections

Stephen Miller
February 2003

O ur home is located in the township of Westmanland in Northern Maine, just a stone's throw south of the 47th parallel. We have lived for almost 30 years in this lovely landscape of forest, hills, lakes and wildlife. Perhaps our decision to come here was a choice of the young and foolish-to turn away from promising careers in meteorology and medical science respectively and to settle on a remote overgrown farm without great resources or an immediate prospect of gainful employment. Over the years our lives here have not been without hardship and misgiving but looking back, I imagine we would make all the choices again and be grateful of our good fortune.


The lines from Maine Public Service run within 800 feet of our house--and did so 30 years ago. Conventional power has always been an option but at that time we couldn't quite afford a hookup and we both had misgivings about the "grid"! I had been an outspoken opponent of nuclear power and, as a meteorologist, I was well aware of the implications that burning fossil fuels had for global climate. Connecting to the grid seemed inconsistent with some deeply held beliefs. (I have since gained greater appreciation of how difficult it is to function in present day culture without crossing this line from time to time).

In 1974, solar (photovoltaic) power was in its infancy and generating home power from the wind was still an expensive and mechanically clumsy option. Since we lacked an affordable source of electric power the winter nights of our first years off grid were illuminated with kerosene lamps and candlelight, and later we became savvy with propane gas lighting. It was dim lighting at best, inefficient, hazardous and polluting of our household air. I would hardly recommend it, but recalling those years does not bring to mind a sense of privation. There were inconveniences but they seemed unimportant, perhaps because our lives were rich in other things.

We bought our first photovoltaic panels in 1982, two 35-watt modules that had been damaged in handling and therefore available at a bargain price. Along with the panels, we bought some deep cycle storage batteries, a charge controller and some 12-watt fluorescent lights. It was learn-as-you home power but the results were encouraging. We now had comfortable light to read by on long winter nights, perhaps a small thing by conventional measure but for us, a luxury.

In the years that followed, there were significant advances in the technology of home power production. Costs decreased and component reliability and sophistication were greatly improved. Since 1982, we have enlarged the capability of our "solar system". Presently 6 solar panels adorn the roof our house and another is hinged to the side of a south-facing porch. That the oldest panels, despite prior damage, are still performing well is impressive testimony to their durability.

This array of panels has a maximum power output of about 350 watts; this allows a useable energy of about 20 kilowatt-hours a month. Compare this to the "average" American household, which will use at least 20 times this amount. By conventional standards it would seem that we are still electrically deprived. Our production of energy is limited and we are constrained to live within those limits.

We have adequate lighting. We use highly efficient fluorescent lights and pay attention to turn off the switch when not in use. We have refrigeration the five months of the year that we need it and a large root cellar to provide refrigeration in the colder months.  A small, ancient Hoover washing machine takes care of the wash. Any other appliances or power tools are okay provided they draw less than 1500 watts. We could have a television but do not. If in the future we are compelled to own a computer, that would be no problem.

What seems to most worry others about the way we live is that we lack running water.
The two of us and our livestock (4 goats and several hens) use roughly 15 gallons of water per day. It is part of my daily round of chores to pump 4 pails of water, which takes perhaps 10 minutes. It is not unpleasant work particularly on bright, starlit nights. I imagine if more people had the privilege of such experience, this precious resource must be treated with greater regard.

Wood heat is our mainstay for warmth (about 4 cords a year from our woodlot) and is our primary source of hot water. I am aware that there may soon come a time when I am no longer able to chop wood and haul water. So we may have to consider running water and at least supplementing with a more conventional heat source.

If I were now contemplating a home power system I might consider wind power as well. Wind generators are now very reliable and are cheaper than photovoltaic panels of equivalent output. However, power from the wind requires a tower and a suitably windy site.

Present innovations in renewable energy technology are being driven by recognition that a clean, safe alternative is needed for carbon-based fuel. Almost everyone acknowledges that a continuing addiction to petroleum is causing great environmental and social damage and has at best, a limited future. It is now apparent that renewable energy could become a major component feeding the grid. Denmark presently produces 20% of its electrical needs from renewables, and calculations show that there is enough available wind energy in several of the windier Midwestern United States to provide 100% of their energy.

It is possible that a switch to renewable energy could be facilitated by improvements in fuel cell technology and particularly by the development of hydrogen as a practical fuel.
Hydrogen, generated by electrolysis of water, would provide efficient storage for wind or solar energy and would allow these systems to feed to the grid (via fuel cells) on demand.

On or off the grid, I am cautiously optimistic that renewable energy can provide a viable alternative to fossil (or nuclear) fuels. Of course, simply using less energy is still an option. Advances in end use efficiency will help in that regard; however, technological improvements must be accompanied by both a societal and individual commitment to use less.

If I have learned anything from our 30-year personal experiment off the grid, it might be the profound relevance of this question: what things are necessary in our lives and what things can we practically and comfortably live without? Few people would care to make the choices we have made. But what if we all chose to "just-say-no" - to abandon the consumerist creed and to choose in its place an ethos of creative frugality? Might this be just what it would take to help resolve the intractable issues that presently threaten our cultural and biological survival?

We conclude that living a simple and relatively frugal life is more a gift of liberation than a burden of hardship. I encourage others to test the truth of this assertion in their own lives and in their own way. I still have faith that a saner, less violent, and healthier society is a possibility!