Michael Mobbs has taken his house off the grid, no longer connected to electricity, water or waste infrastructure. In this first part of a series detailing his experience of disconnecting from the grid, he deals with the consequences of an unexpected system failure.

“may came home with a smooth round stone as small as a world and as large as alone.” *

Part 1 – The agony

I can’t light the gas stove. The spark isn’t there. I can use a match for the gas but there’s no water as the pump won’t go. I can’t fill the kettle to boil it.

Seven days have passed since my house was disconnected from mains grid electricity. The wire to my house from the poles and wires was undone.

Instead, my house was to be powered by a new battery and solar power system.

It worked. For the first two days all the house’s energy was from the sun. Then it broke.

Now my old way of life is undone, too.

I’d like to check my email but there’s no wifi. Without wifi the new system can’t be remotely analysed, nor can it be easily investigated at my house.

How I miss my morning shower, that meditative, cleansing entry to the day.

And my unshaven face feels vagrant; there’s no hot water as there’s no pump for shaving water either.

Going to the toilet; how do I do that when I can’t flush it? That needed an answer in the first few hours of being marooned without energy in a sea of energy. So I visited my neighbours and returned with buckets. They’re glad to help, interested in the saga. We laugh. We’re getting lots of practice at laughing.

Truth is, I’m mostly enjoying this. I love living on the edge.

But I do love my comforts, reading, watching ABC iView, a movie on my laptop from iTunes, and cooking best of all, especially for others. All gone. I eat at cafes with wifi and power points to recharge stuff. Only candles, something I love, too, make home home at the moment. Sunset has acquired a new dimension, reminding me of the horror night brought in the movie The Time Machine, when humans lost their minds to demons who commanded them to walk into caves to be eaten.

Still, there’s no Mary Poppins me, no singing “These are a few of my favourite things”. I’m practically imperfect in every energy-using way.

To shower I can swim at the nearby public baths, importune my neighbours, seek sanctuary with friends. The frequency of showering is declining. Why shower when my clothes can’t be washed.

One night in the last seven, in the very dark house, I thought of going out and watching a movie to escape, something like The Agony and the Ecstasy, but realised I had assumed a leading role in a reality version of it.

I’ve just texted Barbara, my cleaner, asking her not to clean here next week as there’s no power for the vacuum cleaner and washing. Did you know you can buy special little chargers for your mobile phones? Texting, like the beat, goes on.

What brought me to this little escapade?

Michael Mobbs in happier times.

Trying to end my pollution, to stop using coal and gas and oil to run my house. How can I speak against coal mining, burning oil and gas when I use it daily in my house? Surely, that’s hypocrisy?

Each day I feel like I guess a baby learning to walk feels, unsure of my footing, not knowing even why I want to walk. I even have a baby’s curiosity, remarkably frustration-free mostly.

I just want to do this; use only the sun for the house’s energy. Unlike a baby surrounded by walking parents I have no role models, no one to copy. But I’m encouraged that outside cities many thousands of households do this every day and night in the bush, and I’m delighted they don’t make a big deal of it; so this must be easy, right?

When I look at people walking, in cars, eating at cafes, shopping, I feel distant from them, estranged, and sense that we have very different assumptions of how life is to be sustained on Earth. They seem assured that life will go on, that they are normal and their normal actions guarantee them their future walks, driving, food and to-and-froing.

How weird it feels now to be unshaven, unshowered and in the dark, and still regard myself as normal.

If only they knew what I now know so keenly; we assume energy will be there for us like air, will exist to effortlessly deliver the light when we switch for it, the water when we flush for it, turn a tap on.

And that our assumption is merely so much learned dependency, a fantastic belief so dominating our thinking that it’s as huge as the air we unthinkingly assume will be there for us to breathe while we read this.

And yet, so fragile is the support we enjoy from poles and wires energy that we can lose it in a flash of unpredictable disaster.

Ask Japan’s populace, which, where it had the chance, fled the tsunami whose floods in a moment zipped undone power plants, towns, lives and with its might tore away their confidence in “normal” energy.

Or ask any number of islanders whose normalcy is increasingly overwhelmed by hurricanes that flatten their infrastructure.

Ask even the most confident, supremely normal Eastern Seaboarders of the United States whose offices, houses, lifts, street lights, cafes and traffic lights cascaded into darkness in 2003 from New York outwards to darken dozens of cities as their main electricity grid collapsed.

“If only…”, I think, then pause – if what?

The US Eastern Seaborders quickly went back to “normal”, passively grid-dependent. Japan, however, is diversifying its power sources.

Is my solution to the fragility of poles and wires energy this: that, if they know energy from poles and wires can’t be assumed to be always there, people will act more assertively to become independent of the mains electricity grid?

Would most people choose to use the sun’s clean electricity instead? After all, the sun comes up every day.

Look, I don’t know what other people think or would do if they knew how utterly dependent on mains grid electricity they are for most things they do and need, and how polluting it is.

When I add the pollution to the fragility of main grid energy the resulting sum equals, in my opinion, a serious risk of harm to me, my children and friends. Thus, I’ve come to where I am now; living in the dark at night trying to find a solution.

I’m having dark night thoughts among the candles. I wonder how Noah felt when building his ark? His neighbours didn’t copy him and start building an ark.

I’ve no idea if others will go off grid like me. For now this is about me finding my own solution.

My batteries are as big as alone. **

About a battery

Acid batteries = very simple, yesterday’s technology; can be charged and recharged like a bucket with water

Lithium batteries = complex; they’re in mobile phones, laptops, aeroplanes and can charge and recharge with software programs. Mine come with a software program that controls how, whether and when they charge.

* EE Cummings, maggie and milly and molly and may

** Why have I written this confession? Generally, the populace, the culture of a people, depends, surely, on its capacity, individually and collectively, to be honest with itself about how it uses the resources upon which it depends for its survival. In particular, by writing honestly here, this act of disclosure helps me grope towards understanding, to accept my choices. I love honesty, don’t you? Why wouldn’t I share my story with you? Just look at the arrows in my front and back. Then see how easily I shake them out.

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  1. Why push to totally disconnect from the grid? Being grid independent means large batteries and much larger solar panel system with a lot of wasted energy – especially in summer. With a grid connected solar system, you will not waste your summer time solar energy production but put it into the grid to ‘green’ your neighbours power as well. If you want to avoid having to import any fossil fuel fired power then wouldn’t it be better to do a grid connected system with batteries designed to export only those summer peaks?

    Very interested to hear how you get on in this ‘experiment’. Good work!

  2. Hi Michael,
    a voice here from many years ago.
    You are articulating well the change from consuming to being both consumer and supplier – the need to know how it all works and the in-built fail safe and plan b options that provide energy security.
    As you have already said – many decades of RAPS experience tells us it works. And that there is a can-do mindset that comes with the choices being made.

  3. Hi Michael – really great to read your story! Looking forward to episode 2 as we’re also thinking of going off-grid so VERY keen to learn more about your experiences!!! ;0)

    1. Kirsty

      Great to hear of your plans; thanks for commenting and for letting us know.

      There’ll be detailed technical stuff coming soon as well as the unsavoury aspects of my non-abluting life. I’ve discovered how generous, good natured and friendly we can be in such moments for each other. Still, there’s a limit, isn’t there?

      On the plus side the house has surely had the lowest electricity usage in Australia, or close to it, in the last week or so. I know a lot about candles and batteries now.


  4. Michael! I feel totally guilty for watching full sets of Louie and Lilyhammer on US Netflix through our mostly solar powered VPN.

    Thanks for the honesty: and fantastic news that neighbours come to the rescue. Self-reliance is always a community affair. That might also the trick when micro grids enable us to share battery storage and solar production around the block.

    Like others I’m following your plight with bated breath. No doubt a next chapter is coming soon…

    1. Hi, Mara

      Great to hear from you. Don’t feel guilty; I’ll feel guilty for making you feel guilty . . . where does that get us?

      Have partly written the next installment.

      Had a shower at a neighbours across the road today and it has to rank as one of my best moments in these recent days. The kids in that house think it’s fun that I come over to shower; I’m another form of entertainment for them.

      See you next time you’re in Sydney, Michael

  5. Good on you for having the courage to do it. I sit here in all my coal fired luxury. I feel bad about it but not enough to do anything to move outside my comfort zone. I think you and Kylie are pioneers and one day I’ll be watching your doco on ABC, narrated by Dr Karl. Hope there’s more like you and we look back one day soon and laugh we didn’t live like you much sooner, with flushing loos of course ???? Kim

  6. Kate. Phew; how good to hear that. While writing my ‘confession’ I wondered if it may put folks off. Stay tuned to TFE for the solutions, and an explanation. Michael