Sustainability guru Michael Mobbs this week disconnected his terrace house in inner city Chippendale from the electricity grid.
On Tuesday the meters were disconnected. By Wednesday he was holding adrift the wires that connected his house to the grid.
This latest in a line of audacious action from Mobbs almost completes his quest that started in 1996 to become utility independent so he could minimise his impact on the planet.
Mobbs, a frequent contributor to The Fifth Estate, has over the years continued an unending campaign to green his patch of the world and as far afield as he can. There’s been a battery of media missiles – from newspapers articles, websites, television programs, and radio – ABC and shock jock Alan Jones included – not to mention his personal proselytising, group tours through his house, books he’s written, and individual consultancy, in order to change the world and help save the planet.
Mobbs makes good copy because so much of his personal brand of activism is feisty. Like the time he told the council he and a bunch of neighbours would be digging up the concrete paths to plant vegetables and other edible greenery so could they please send someone to collect the rubble on Monday morning.
This latest act of defiance to planet eating bureaucracy and dirty infrastructure is just one more hurdle on his journey – and a penultimate step to complete utility independence, he said.
The water connection was cut several years ago after he installed a water tank and sewerage system.
However disconnection of the gas will have to wait until after the winter because he wants to make sure he can get through the winter warmed from the sun’s energy. So no blind suffering idealism here; it has to work, he said.
On Tuesday he told The Fifth Estate why he did it.
“Two reasons,” he says. “I just don’t want to cause any more pollution using mains electricity. And two, I want to show you can do it.”
“Amazingly,” as far as he understands, “no one has done it.” At least in metropolitan areas. In rural and remote areas, it’s no big deal, he says.
But this is difficult to verify.
Ausgrid, which runs the network in his patch, needed to give permission, but was otherwise unconcerned. Mobbs signed, they approved, he says.
We asked Ausgrid what the level of voluntary disconnections might be.
“We certainly do not receive very many if not any at all in metro areas”, a spokesman said.
The company tracked connection data, and there were disconnections for many reasons (development work for instance), he said.
As we’ve reported before there are also plenty of involuntary disconnections in Australia because people can’t afford to pay the bills. The numbers are astounding: In Queensland more than 7000 households between July and September last year, in Victoria 34,000 in 2013-14, a 36 per cent increase on 2012-13, and in NSW it was 33,000 in 2013-14.
However, the spokesman said the potential for more of this to occur was part of the landscape the organisation and its peers were investigating.
“There’s been a lot of research into embedded generation with solar, trigeneration and electric vehicles, and all energy companies are looking at how to plan for the future that will include a mix of energy solutions that includes embedded energy.”
So how did Mobbs get to disconnect?
First step was to more than double the solar power capacity from two kilowatts to 5kW. And then to install the new battery storage system. Upstairs on the front balcony of his house is a powerful lithium-ion battery system unit that will enable his house to continue to operate, hopefully seamlessly. It’s provisionally named Angus.
Part of the process was a form to complete and sign for Ausgrid, which wanted to ensure the procedure was safe, but otherwise made no fuss. Then there was another form to sign with the solar power and battery supplier to promise he wouldn’t complain if the power ran short.
So how did he feel after the deed?
“Clean inside,” is the answer. “I feel a sense of completion. Tonight I can go to bed and read with energy that came from the sun. I’m not creating any pollution except for gas.”
If the power proves to be sufficient to warm the house through winter, he will disconnect from the gas and if others follow, “there’ll be no market for gas,” he says.
Total cost of the battery and inverters was about $14,000.
The downside is he now looses about $500 a year he made from selling solar power to the grid.
But that’s no problem.
“Basically I regard that as dirty money,” Mobbs says.
Demand for carbon neutral footprint is on the rise
The company that installed the additional solar capacity and the battery, Australia Wide Solar, also did the initial installation 20 years ago.
Stewart Everitt, who is a co-founder of the company along with Richard Keetley, told The Fifth Estate he expected a lot more interest in battery storage by the end of the year when the gross feed in tariff switched to a net feed in tariff system in NSW.
Driving interest, he says, was a growing desire for a carbon neutral footprint.
“Our business started in1992, largely for off-grid work for those who didn’t have power – such as camping grounds and caravan parks – and then it soon opened into doing grid-connected systems,” he says.
“Now there is an enormous amount of interest in hybrid systems – a bit of Ausgrid, a bit of solar. It’s like hybrid cars – a bit of petrol, a bit of electricity.
“Most of the interest is domestic. What we’re finding is a lot of customers who want to have the experience of living carbon neutrally so it essentially means making power in the daylight hours and in the evening bringing power in from the street. So you want to store excess power.”
The gross feed in tariff system works by paying solar power generation from a household roof, which is sent straight to the grid. At the same time the household takes all its power from the grid and pays a price for that.
The end of this system and the introduction of a net feed in tariff means that the solar generation is used to off-set the use of grid electricity by the household, so the system pays comparatively little to the producer.
Net FITs are sometimes referred to as a “fake feed-in tariffs”.
Everitt says it will look much more attractive for people to keep the power they generate themselves through a battery system and avoid buying “dirty” energy and only when necessary – in other words a “hybrid system”.
At present, he says, the cost of battery storage is roughly double the cost of the solar power system installed. But “battery storage is significantly better” than it used to be.
Everitt won’t say which brand he used for Mobbs’ house.
“I don’t want to nominate a brand. They are all a bit different and serve different purposes,” he says.
What’s important is to find a system to suit the client.
Everitt says he anticipates that by the end of the year there will be growth in the sector and he and his partner are planning to grow the 10-strong team by “two or three” people.
“The one consistent message from the customer is they’re really striving to be neutral in terms of the power they’re using and creating. They’re striving for zero footprints.”
But this doesn’t mean that he advocates going off grid for everyone. His own household is not, for instance.
“It’s easy to get washed up in the romance of the thing.”
On the Mobbs project, Everitt says, “We’re nervous”. He confirmed the company asked Mobbs to sign a waiver from action if the power was insufficient.
“To go off the grid is really about drawing a line in the sand. I should be the one leading the way not Michael.” Trouble is Everitt’s own house uses too much energy.
And Mobbs’ house is not average, he says – it’s been designed to minimise power use.
- Read more about Michael Mobbs’ house and solar system