The Off-Grid Learning Centre

Last Sunday we drove out to Ste-Marie to visit a home that had recently opened itself up to the public to demonstrate alternative energy systems. This house is completely off-grid and was powered using a combination of solid fuel, wind and solar energy. Actually the wind generating system is being dismantled because it doesn’t work very well. Wind out here is intermittent and when it blows, it blows hard, so a tall windmill needs to be very firmly supported. The owner also had trouble with winter ice on the windmill blades preventing the blades from turning, another strike against the windmill-as-power option.

The whole idea of an alternative system came about because the property wasn’t hooked up to power and it would have cost $50,000 to connect to the grid. The owner decided, at that point, to invest in other sources of energy and did so pretty much all self-financed. The provincial government is now giving some financial support and they’ve built another building on the property, demonstrating the different systems also used in the main house. Part of getting provincial support requires them opening their home up to the public and conducting tours a couple of afternoons a week, hence our opportunity to visit and learn.

The demo building included the water jacket system you’ll see in the photos below. A specially constructed wood-burning stove creates the heat with glycol circulating through the stove and in copper pipes to a hot water tank and to baseboard heaters in the attached greenhouse. A small pump moves the glycol through the pipes and a thermostat in the hot water tank controls water temperature. This system is used to heat water in the winter time, when wood stoves are also heating the house and cooking food, but in the summer they use a solar system. This involves long glass tubes which heat circulating glycol and a heat exchanger to transfer the heat to the hot-water tank.

Part of the demo building is built to take advantage of passive solar energy for heating and for starting seedlings. The seedling room has baseboard heaters with the tubes of glycol running through and a south-facing wall of hard greenhouse plastic. There were also composting toilets being set up in that building though they hadn’t arrived yet. They plan to use the SunMar toilets and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they aren’t quite what they’re cracked up to be. The bucket method is so much more practical! I don’t know anyone who’s had a good experience with the SunMar type, which are very expensive, tend to break down and don’t actually compost as much as they dehydrate the compostables (at a high energy cost).

Solar energy powers the two houses: the well pump, lights, appliances and power tools are all powered by solar photovoltaic panels. Hot water, cooking and space heating are powered by wood or by the solar hot-water system. The solar panels face south and can be moved to different angles at different times of the year. Inside the hut is a very complex system of inverters, batteries, and other high voltage electrical gizmos that store and convert the power before sending it to the house. The house and demo house each have a breaker panel, just like you’d see in any home, and the power comes to it via a line, like a hydro line. The family also has a diesel generator for emergency use and this is wired into the system so a flick of the switch is all that’s needed to get emergency power going.

The owner reckons he spent $75,000 setting this system up and, given that they’d be spending over $2000/year for electricity if they’d spent the $50K to hook up to the grid, there seems to be a reasonable pay-back time. Unfortunately, for anyone who is already hooked up to the grid, the cost of these systems greatly outweigh their potential to eventual pay back the investment, at least at current electrical rates. However, if you consider that electricity may one day become very expensive, and if you are keen to reduce your own contribution to environmental damage caused by unsustainable systems (nuclear, coal-fired, gas-fired systems), then there is some interesting potential here. For someone building a place in a rural area, the costs compared to doing a conventional hook-up become quite manageable.

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One Response to “The Off-Grid Learning Centre”

  1. Lisa Says:

    Very interesting; thanks for sharing this.

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