The Off-Grid/Green Myth, Part II

By Cam Mather

When Professor and Canada Research Chair Phillip Vannini came to visit us recently as part of his research on people who live “off the grid” he had just come from an off-grid home north of Toronto. This couple had indicated to him that they had gone off grid for “environmental reasons.” I can’t remember their exact distance, but let’s say they were about 50 miles north of Toronto (which you’d have to be to be able to afford any amount of property these days.) And it turns out that they worked outside of the home… in Toronto. They commuted back and forth every day.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. Everything they do from an electricity energy standpoint is being offset by their transportation energy use. And what’s worse, in a province like Ontario where more than 55% of our electricity is nuclear (which I don’t like but which doesn’t emit carbon like coal) and 20% is hydro (with wind and solar gaining some ground as we close coal plants) electricity isn’t the problem for most people. It’s transportation and heating. Burning natural gas to heat your home or hot water is the problem. You take sequestered carbon and burn it and release that carbon into the atmosphere.

If you look at the Ministry of Natural Resources data for Canadians as a whole, which includes some provinces like Quebec and B.C. where most of their electricity is generated with hydro (water), and places like Alberta which is mostly coal, you see that really, electricity use in the house isn’t that big a deal. Almost 80% of your carbon footprint is how you heat your home and your hot water.


Source: NRCan, National Energy Use Database, 1990 to 2005 (2007), Comprehensive Energy Use Database,  Residential Sector, Canada, Table 2, “Secondary energy use and GHG emissions by end-use.”

So really, in many places throughout Canada, going “off-grid” from an environmental point of view doesn’t make any sense.

In this article from a recent edition of the Toronto Star newspaper, a family decided to spend $30,000 to go off-grid rather than $42,000 to get connected to the grid.–shocking-living-without-hydro

(Note to our U.S. Readers – In Ontario, many people refer to “electricity” as “hydro” because our main utility “Ontario Hydro” started out exclusively producing power from hydro electric dams at Niagara Falls.)

In the article the owner talks about using natural light as if it’s a big deal. And they use a “tankless” hot water system so they are not constantly heating water. That’s the way to go off-grid.’

But he’s already explained that he uses propane for his fridge, stove, hot water, back-up generator, and heat. So he really hasn’t gone off-grid, he’s just gone “on propane.” And propane is expensive. I’d think that over the long run he would have been way further ahead to go “on-grid” and use electricity for all of his thermal or heat loads. His lights are no big deal. They are a tiny fraction of his over-all household energy use. He has batteries but since he’s only there on weekends, it will be harder for him to keep an eye on them and maintain them properly. Poorly maintained batteries don’t last as long, so his savings in going off-grid will be further compromised when he has to replace his batteries earlier than usual.

This is a weekend retreat. So this family drives there, about 3 hours each way, every weekend. Their carbon footprint is massive. Which brings us to the other disturbing thing we learned from Professor Vannini about off-gridders. They love to fly!

Professor Vannini and Jonathan had both been to India and we explained that even though our daughter and future son-in-law are planning on holding part of their wedding celebrations in India (Dhruva is from India and much of his family still lives there), we won’t be going because “we don’t fly.” This is a particularly difficult decision under the circumstances but after two decades of reading about climate change we’ve come to realize that one of the worst things you can do for the planet is to fly. “If you fly you destroy other people’s lives.” (As George Monbiot explained in his book “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning) Residents of the Maldives are already feeling this effect because their island nation is sinking under the rising Pacific. Their government is now trying to purchase land to move to. I will not inflict that on another member of the human race.

In fact Professor Vannini had never met someone who chooses not to fly for environmental reasons.

It turns out that this is not the case with most off-gridders, according to the professor.  He said that most of the off-gridders he had met tended to be well educated and have higher than average incomes, and they love to travel. So apparently people aren’t going off-grid to save the planet. I just found that so depressing.

I have found this paradox with many in the environmental movement. They are concerned about the fate of the planet and yet they are hell bent on seeing as much of it as they can afford before it’s gone. On one hand I get this, but on the other, I don’t understand what they think the green movement can do to save the planet if people who consider themselves “green” can’t stay in one place. And when they go off-grid they need to actually look at their carbon footprint and figure out how best to reduce it. Governments can only do so much. At a certain point it’s personal action that matters.

As I write this on March 21 the temperature outside my Canadian home should be about 5°C (40°F). But I’m in my shorts and it’s 24°C (74°F). It’s been this warm for a week and it shows no sign of cooling down anytime soon. It’s the prime season for me to be accomplishing a lot of outside work but it’s TOO HOT! On the news they mentioned that Chicago was hotter than Florida.

Sigh…  Can you buy Prozac over the counter? Hey Michelle, dig out the chocolate treat box. I need some chocolate!

5 Responses to “The Off-Grid/Green Myth, Part II”

  • Cathy:

    Prozac doesn’t work as well as fresh air and honorable labor. Chocolate doesn’t grow in Canada. Climate change has been happening since the earth was created and it will continue to change forever. You can’t change the world only “your” world. Cam, Take a deep breath and go do some dirt therapy.

  • Scott:

    Just remember, man was created to give planet Earth the one thing it could not produce, PLASTIC.

  • Did somebody say “chocolate?” Gimme, gimme!

    There’s a reason why so many “off-gridders” have higher than average incomes–they’re the only ones who can AFFORD to spend all the money it takes to re-create their homes and living environments. The people who really need to find cheaper ways to live (like me) don’t have the luxury of diverting income to solar collectors and batteries, never mind move to a property far enough away to be appropriate AND keep the job that brings in a few palty bucks. I’m doing what I can, but I feel like the crab that isn’t allowed to get out of the bucket!

  • Rick:

    Good post, and points Cam.

    As too those “well educated” folks who are off-gridders, and still like to fly. How stupid is that! I have many “well educated” friends, but they don’t have a clue, about much. I also do not like to fly, though I did recently.

    I live near Chicago, and many are in denial about the weather. AGW is real, and this is what it looks like. Those that say, look at Europe, North Africa, it’s been cold there, how can the planet be warming up, with cold like that. They just don’t understand, climate change, changes the weather in bad ways, not always just hot, but cold, too much rain, too much snow, or not enough rain. And the end result, is really bad for farming, food production and other. But, last time I checked humans need to eat – AGW could make that impossible for many, in the coming years.

  • Paul:

    It’s OK Cam…. there are some of us who also don’t get the travel thing. Especially today when you can “travel” anywhere from your computer without the masses of people, dirty washrooms, crowded transportation etc, etc… The end of cheap oil will stop all that except for the 1%. We as a species are an anomaly, an experiment if you like, somebody/thing is having a good laugh at us right now! Pass teh chocolate.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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