By Cam Mather
Shortly after we moved off the electricity grid 13 years ago I began presenting workshops on renewable energy. The first renewable energy workshop that I did was a bit of an afterthought. I was presenting a workshop on home-based businesses at a homeschooling conference that Michelle and I were involved with. We decided to offer a workshop on renewable energy, as a general interest kind of thing, and it proved to be quite popular.
So a decade ago I pitched the idea of doing a renewable energy workshop to St. Lawrence College in Kingston as part of their Continuing Ed program. That was back in my “pre-Powerpoint days.” I actually had props that I dragged along to each workshop. I had a solar panel, a small inverter, our old Air 403 wind turbine, and my “Renewable Energy Home Wiring Board.” This was a piece of plywood where I basically wired up a system similar to one in your house. I even got my neighbor Ken, who’s a licensed electrician, to make sure it was all up to code. I can’t tell you how many times he has coached me on how to wire an outlet before I had the confidence to do one on my own.
I liked my props, but they were heavy. Really heavy. And I don’t mean in the hippie “wow, that’s heavy man” sort of way. I had mounted the wind turbine on a steel pipe base that Ken had helped me to weld. I think it weighed about 80 lbs. Solar panels are a fair weight, and the wiring board weighed a ton and was really awkward to carry. And of course, I would arrive at my workshop on a Saturday morning to find that the assigned room was on the third floor and there were no elevators nearby.
Eventually I discovered PowerPoint and so I didn’t have the same need for visual aids. I still use some props, but just the light ones. Once I got into the groove at St. Lawrence College, I took the show on the road and I’ve since done my renewable energy workshop at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Mohawk College in Hamilton, Conestoga College in Cambridge, Fanshaw College in London, The Royal Botanical Gardens and a variety of other conferences and events in between.
I usually offered a morning workshop on solar and wind for the homeowner and then in the afternoon I presented my “Thriving During Challenging Times” workshop. The afternoon workshop looked at the converging challenges of peak oil, climate change and the economic collapse, and offered a more aggressive approach for preparing for these eventualities. The morning workshop was the shiny happy, let’s put up some solar panels workshop. The afternoon was the “let’s take the red pill” and really figure out what’s going on. Based on people’s enthusiasm for this workshop I finally wrote the book “Thriving During Challenging Times” which has taken the message and ideas to a much broader audience.
Sometimes the money for doing these workshops seemed great, especially if I worked it out on an hourly basis, just for the three or six hours I was actually yakking. But for many of the colleges I’d have to arrive the night before which meant that my Friday was shot getting stuff together and travelling there. I believe that people get motivated when they see people who are really enthusiastic about a topic, which is how I feel about renewable energy. So I really put a lot into my workshops. If that means a lot of arm waving and falling on the floor and flopping around with limbs flailing like a fish out of water, I’ll do it. People rarely fall asleep in my workshops. To ensure that they don’t I offer a number of door prizes and I only award them when I see someone dozing off. It’s amazing how quickly people wake up when they subconsciously hear the tone of the background noise has changed.
Usually by the end of my day presenting workshops I’ve lost my voice and I it takes me all day Sunday to recover. So suddenly the pay that seemed good based on 3 hours of talking gets spread over three days and it doesn’t seem so good after all.
So this fall we’ve decided to try something different. Over the years we’ve had many people come out to see our place and there seems to be a lot of interest in seeing an off-grid system in action. I think there are still some myths about living off the grid, like you don’t have running water and have dirt floors. Michelle was at a parent-teacher interview one time and the teacher commented that she would never have known that our daughters lived in an off-grid house because “they are so clean.” So clean? How could they not be! They took 45-minute long showers! When people come for a tour I insist that they flush the toilet, and we turn on the TV so they see we’re not completely isolated from the world.
This fall we’re offering “The Living Sustainably and Independently, Ready for Rough Times, Hands-on, Solar-Powered, All You Can Grow Workshop” at our house. It’s going to be a full-day workshop and it’s going to be the most relevant workshop I’ve done so far because people will actually get to see everything in action. I’ve always had lots of photos of my system and my house in my PowerPoints, but for this workshop, participants get to see the real thing. Well maybe not everything that’s in the PowerPoints. I have a photo of our clothesline because we don’t have a dryer. Of course people immediately ask me how we dry our clothes in the winter, so the next photo is of our drying racks beside the woodstove. Michelle has never liked me showing people a photo of our underwear drying on a rack, but the photo quality is not really that good, and I assume that most people do wash and wear underwear themselves. I explain that a woodstove can make your home rather dry, so it’s nice to dry your clothing on racks inside that release moisture into the air, and no fossil fuels are burned in the process.
I’m also going to really focus on food and I think being able to tour the gardens will really help people get a handle on food production. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I eat and what it takes to grow it so I think I have a pretty good perspective on it. Michelle would say I’m obsessed with where our food comes from, and I’m okay with that. And people will be able to check out the root cellar and pantry to get a handle on food storage.
I’m also going to talk on the money element of the book. With the chaos in the markets and economy these days, I think people need a radical overhaul in their approach to money, so I’ll be focusing on that as well.
When we had the student tour here last winter I realized that I can attach our TV in the living room to my laptop, so I’m going to have a short PowerPoint presentation as background, then get going on showing all of this stuff in action. Since this part of the workshop will take place in our living room we decided to cap the numbers at 12, which means that no one has to sit on anyone else’s lap… unless this is something they wish to do, which I’m always open to.
We’re going to serve lunch and I’m really interested to see the group dynamics. Years ago I did my Thriving During Challenging Times workshop at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, and then afterwards I suggested that one evening a month later Michelle and I would be at the Sleepless Goat café in downtown Kingston to get together with anyone from the workshop who wanted to talk. I thought this offered every one a chance to digest the material and meet other people who had a similar worldview. I think about 12 people came. Then we invited them all up here one Saturday for coffee. A number of these folks have become involved with starting a “Transition Kingston” group so it’s always great to see how these things pan out.
As with everything in my life these days my workshops are evolving and taking on new dimensions. I can’t complain. It keeps me on my toes and I think constantly using your brain like this helps ward off Alzheimers. And since I can’t bring myself to do crossword puzzles and all the other things they say are good for mental acuity, refining my workshops will have to suffice.
The workshop is scheduled for Saturday, October 29th from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. We are two hours from Ottawa and about 2-1/2 hours from Toronto. You can find out more information at http://cammather.com/off-grid-retreat/upcoming-workshops-at-sunflower-farm