Powering Up

After many years of living off-grid with a small 600w solar array, I have this week been successfully connected to the mains. The immediate benefit was plugging in a fridge and having a cool beer.


Living off-grid has done nothing for me if not helped me appreciate the enormous value of reliable electricity supply. In this part of the world, solar is extremely variable at any time of the year. I could only use the washing machine if I was sure of several hours of clear sunshine, for example. Living this way, although winning me Brownie points for virtue from visitors concerned about use of fossil fuels, is neither more “sustainable” nor cheaper. I have noticed a phrase used by those who work in the renewable energy sector: “free energy” as in “use a generator when the sun/wind is not there, and the ‘free’ energy the rest of the time.” But none of this is ‘free’- this is a deception as misleading as conspiracy claims of suppressed ‘free energy’ machines.

(If you believe in such conspiracy theories, or the plausibility of “free energy” I suggest a thought experiment: what would a free energy machine look like? How big might it be? Would just one do for the whole world, or would every household and industrial plant need their own? How would the energy be transmitted to the users? Would that be ‘free’? The point is of course, wind and solar power are indeed free, but getting them to a usable form is not.)

I know several people around West Cork who live off-grid with wind, solar or both, and even those with bigger systems- which would have cost substantially more than mine (EUR5000 in 2009)- routinely rely on petrol or diesel generators when they have not enough “free energy” to keep the lights on. Since I will now be saving the costs of running a generator, I expect in the winter at least to be actually saving money, in addition of course to having access to far more power when I need it.

The draw-back with off-grid living is of course the storage issue: batteries are expensive and have a life-expectancy of only a few years. Grid-tie and national renewable options have the same draw-back: you cannot store electricity, and only having access to power at the whim of nature is not much use to anyone: unlimited “free” energy that was available only, say, between 3-4am would be of little benefit with no means of storing it.

The day after my power was turned on I awoke to reports that the UK could be facing blackouts very soon. The Guardian argues that this is because energy companies shutting gas plants that do not make good returns, because they have been undercut by cheap imports of coal from America and elsewhere. Lomborg argues on the other hand that the UK has its priorities wrong by opting to continue to subsidize expensive off-shore wind while sitting on the world’s biggest deposit of shale gas.

It is wrong to see wind and solar as “clean” when they clearly also involve large-scale industrial processes and produce toxic waste; neither are they in anyway “free”- indeed, some analysts claim the drop in price of pv panels is largely driven by subsidies and “energy from solar PV is currently about one order of magnitude more expensive than energy from coal.”

The Coomhola and Borlin valley where I live is a remote part of west Cork which only achieved electrification in the 1970s. (High-speed broad-band access has still to achieve this!) According to Hidden Gold- History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys by Julia Kemp (1998)

Electricity came to Lower Coomhola in 1958, but did not reach the higher parts of the valley until 1974. It was offered previously but it was considered too much to pay another bill on top of the existing rents and rates.


My energy needs are still modest. I am not going to become suddenly profligate in my energy consumption. I was brought up to turn off lights and appliances when not in use and will continue to do so. I have spent extra money on energy-efficient LED bulbs in the hope that they will last much longer (despite my electrician scornfully telling me they were a waste of money).


This 4W LED bulb amply illuminates the whole room with a bright but soft light

In the times we live in, where it is fashionable to talk about “powering down” – as of course I also used to preach– I invite you to join me this week in celebrating the wonders of cheap electricity, available on demand, and spare a thought for the 1.2 billion people worldwide who still do not have access to this. Let’s work to change the environmentalist mindset that energy use is somehow bad and aspire instead to a world where everyone can Power-Up and have at least some of the benefits of electricity that the rest of us take for granted.

Electricity– seen on Bantry market last week



7 thoughts on “Powering Up

  1. Graeme: I have been following you/your blog for some time. Great thought pieces, good reads! Thanks. But somewhere between “hither and yon” I missed the fact that you were living off the grid. Amazing! Blair and I have mulled over trying out alternative energy sources…although, admittedly, we have not taken any significant steps towards doing so (will require a move further south first methinks). But we do have plenty of sun and wind here in Alberta – so thats a plus. Thanks for posting this piece. I will share this post with some other “off the grid” fans here in Canada.

    • Thanks Cami! Im also a big fan of you (on Twitter) 🙂 It all depends on your energy requirements and lifestyle, but off-grid is probably going to be very expensive for most people, and the batteries are always the weak point: buy the best you can afford but expect to have to fork out again after 15-20yrs at the very most. Having your own system, especially with wind, can also be quite a lot of work for maintenance. Even with electricity prices in Ireland quite high the mains service seems a very good deal to me! And of course if I decide that living without a fridge for cold beer and only intermittent lights was better, I can still just turn everything off!!

  2. “free energy” – just as the gods don’t charge us for the sun and wind they don’t actually charge us for other fuels. Even fossil fues come out of the ground for FREE .. with a cost of extraction, compensation for land owners, and taxes being added on. That’s just like 2013 renewables except that instead of tax income, the subsidies mean they are tax absorbers.

  3. Very Good. I didn’t realize either that you were living off-grid. Good job. I am still living completely on the grid. I’ve made some adjustments but clearly not enough.

    It is amazing to think about how so called modern civilization has supposedly advanced itself to an amazing point of self-reliance. It’s the greatest myth of all time. Everything, even the Green Revolution, was oil. All industrialization was conjured from an oil base. All modern technology was birthed from oil discovery. While mankind does have great initiative and imagination without the foundation of oil energy inputs we would have very little. Thanks.

  4. Right you are. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Even using the “free energy” costs. One needs the (expensive) specialized equipment needed to use that “free energy.”

  5. Hi Graham. Just spotted this. You might be planning to keep your solar array, but drop me an e-mail for a chat if you’re trying to sell it!

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