In this second part of the saga of going off grid in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Chippendale, Michael Mobbs dissects what went wrong and how the off-grid system installers are going to fix it. Meanwhile he’s getting acquainted with how to cook on the burning coals in his fireplace. Nice.

“and I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth
except to say it isn’t worth a dime ”

Closing Time, Leonard Cohen

Part 2: The ecstasy

From the Bathurst Burr: (Me talking to me while I cook. Think, do.)

Cooking clears my mind.

Lay thin slices of lamb meat between the metal gridiron arms, clamp tight, place over the red coals in my fireplace.

Return to the kitchen bench, knife and cutting board.

Slice fresh corn kernels upon fresh beans. The new Global knife silently takes all before it. With this blade I am warrior. No second chance fingers.

Chucked chilli and garlic bits go over what’s in the new high-sided frypan to toss with. Spinach, thin pumpkin and spud, olive oil, sliced okra.

New things bought, me looking after me defying my house with no electricity, dark in the city.

Old night thick outside. Not in here. Bugger off.

Five candles shine like headlights in one long wax bank across the diameter of the table near the fire.

Check lamb. Burning, cooking well. Turn over. Fun to learn cooking with embers.

Gypsy the dog dangles her sensate paws over the edge of the floor close to the fire, loving the heat and burning meat, staking claims. Smile. Give me sensate or give me death. Come here and read aloud to me Dylan Thomas, a beer awaits you. Gentle with me into this good night.

Upstairs I race, top and bottom flights lit by candles. Get my phone, play Emmylou Harris while I serve up. Gods, a voice to keep out the dark.

To table. And here’s derring-do with dark red wine in fire-lit glasses, dog at rest, candlelight seasoning the food n heart, goblins outside repelled. Kylie, a house guest, Gypsy’s owner, eats at peace.

Eating, turps, dog, warmth, silence. Ancient light inside me and around.

Me to me, “That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.” (Funny, isn’t it, how Kiwi bits thread through my Aussie life?)

Not so bad having no electricity. Doing no harm. Suck that up Google, Apple, Ikea, hypocrites, accountant tax bandits all. Now there’s false wealth.

Think of Jessie and Julian, wonder how they are, what they’d think of their dad this way, undone by his grand design. Red flames give no answers, seek no quarter as they go about their job. An ancient thing, watching flames with food, this.

My needs and expectations simpler. My thoughts sparer, freer. My body odour stronger, but no friends lost yet it seems. Getting used to feeling dirty. Jesus. Buddha. Rumi.

Hey, no swearing. Those lads went this way too. Gypsy’s got it worked out. Ahead of me as usual. Have some meat then.

But enough is enough. I want my lights back.

Today the vice-president of the Chinese company visited Australia to meet distributors and his first stop was to inspect my system. I’m not sure whether it was the unwashed sheets of my bed – to see the machine he had to walk through my bedroom – or some other spur but he then communicated with his Chinese office and promised a solution tomorrow.

What happened on the morrow

New software to increase the thinking and storage capacity of the batteries arrived by email (14MB) from China and an hour later was installed by the Australian company’s electrical engineer and a company director (who, by now, had a key so they could come and go if no one was at home).

Previously each battery communicated with the other two batteries only if one was charged above the minimum storage threshold. Only with a charged battery of the same type would the other batteries recover and charge (yes, I agree, hard to fathom).

The software would now tell each battery to charge from any source (generator, sun, mains) even if the battery charge was below the minimum threshold and even if all other batteries in the array are also below the minimum charge.

But.

A few hours later a bug was discovered; it prevented the batteries being recharged. The engineer emailed China where work began on draft three of the software.

Another dark night. I’d invited friends that night and they came with plates of food and we enjoyed a laugh in good spirits among the candles. “Bacchanalian”, said some with electrified households, wishfully. A neighbour, Melinda, brought a carry bag and said, “Put your dirty dishes in this and leave it outside my door and I’ll wash them for you.” A beautiful thing, friendship.

By now I wanted another option not dependent upon software.

So I asked for another battery to be sent from China and was told it could be here in a week. It could be programmed with the new software so that when installed it will increase the capacity and security of the system as well as make the existing batteries accept the sun’s energy.

Special precautions would have to be met for shipping the lithium battery by plane and that would add to the freight time and cost. The Chinese company and its Australian distributor said the cost of air freighting a 22kg lithium battery from its factory in China to Sydney was “$1000”. That neat round figure for a 22kg package, roughly equal to an airfare to China, was not credible to me and I asked for the specific freight cost. I said I would not pay it, and it was not a cost I should pay.

The Chinese battery company and its Australian distributor refused to pay or to vary or specify what the “$1000” was for.

I felt abandoned to swing in the wind despite me giving their product a real life trial, more robust software and free international media.

I had not (yet) asked these folk to pay the costs I’d incurred due to the product’s failure, which exceed $1000, but the exchange prompted me to do some rough figures on my out of pocket costs. The costs to the installer company were significant; having an electrical engineer parked on my balcony for many days was a cost to them the benefits of which were being passed onto the Chinese company and its Australian distributor in the form of product and software development from a trial in a real project.

For over $500 Kylie the house guest purchased batteries to charge our phones and a mobile internet thing with credit to download data as the house’s internet was dead. Other costs and inconvenience included trips to friends for showers, clothes washing, wasted food, and such.

Anyway, the third software edit was received the next day and worked.

How delicious to shower in my own house again.

Off grid in a house doing no harm.

Some lessons learned

I’ve no regrets. Not using coal and gas fired electricity is cleansing my life, especially now the shower works.

I’ve enjoyed beaut support from friends and those who’ve contacted me to encourage me during these two weeks of candle-driven austerity. The installer has been terrific. Thank you all.

And, look, it’s no big deal to have this thing break down. Two years after I disconnected from mains water and sewer in 1996 the sewage system broke and I was knee deep in sewage; that was more to fret about than this and since then that system’s been fine. Just as I learnt a lot about sewage then, so too now do I know more about electricity.

Two things stand out for me from this experience.

First, we make little in Australia. We import most of what we use. Look around your room where you are now and see if anything’s made in Australia. One or two things at most? We are a small market a long way from most manufacturers. Even so, our solar industry is expected to turn over $900 million in the year to June 2016.

As a result, we don’t have much leverage. There’s little financial incentive for product makers to have technicians here. Many representatives of overseas product makers are sales people who are not much help when the product they’re selling breaks down. Technical support is difficult to obtain in Australia as the manufacturer typically confines to itself the technical know-how to fix its products unless the market and sales here are sufficient to justify training locals or sending one of theirs here.

Second, generally speaking, Australia’s small cottage-industry-like solar and energy storage industry, doesn’t seem, in its current composition, up to the task of re-powering us. This follows on partly from the first point. The industry is mostly small companies which grow organically, and few survive.

If it were smart, and truly wanted a dominant renewable energy market, the renewables industry would long ago have ceased to ride on the back of rising electricity prices and begun strategies to run Australia with clean energy before 2020 (1). Instead, it pins its hope on others, governments in particular, to improve business. It expends non-renewable energy complaining about red tape, government policy. To be fair, though, government solar policy in Australia has a commanding lead in the International Bastardry Stakes.

Using the sun for energy is one of our simplest, cheapest and most beautiful living choices but that story has yet to be told by the solar industry.

It typically costs over $50,000 for approvals for a small $200,000 house build or renovation and takes over nine months to get the approvals and build. Compare a solar approval: it can be obtained almost free and, for less than the cost of a building approval, the panels can be put on a house in a month. Who knows?

Enough of this – let’s those of us who choose to get on with it.

“Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.” (2)

(1) Solar only provides two per cent of Australia’s direct energy production.

(2) The first person who comments on TFE with the name of the person who said that, and where, is welcome to a free tour of the house’s energy, water and food systems.

Notes

  • The value to me of the lessons learned, and to the Australian companies and the Chinese product maker, is difficult to quantify; but the lessons were essential for the product makers, sellers and installers to be able to continue sales.
  • Lithium batteries “learn” from their use; that is, they improve their storage capacity with use and become more accurate in what they say about themselves in the displays of storage capacity.
  • If these batteries are charged from an adjoining household supply that will trip the next door’s switch board and their power will go off, too. To prevent that the electrical engineer temporarily hardwired the connecting lead from next door into the battery charger at my place. Only a licensed electrician can do this.
  • To enable my battery system to be charged from a generator or some other source (including next door) the electrical engineer connected a lead to the battery system so that I, who has no electrical qualifications, may simply plug in the generator or other source after I have turned off two switches in the machine; one to turn off all the supply to my house, one to do something else to the machine so it doesn’t turn off next door’s supply.
  • Using our experience the Australian installer and I have agreed on the wording of a one-page A4 laminated sheet placed near the machine. It’s in plain English for a lay person like me and lists some key “must do”, “must know” stuff.

Some system details

  • Each of the three batteries can provide up to 2.2kWh of electricity, a total of 8.8kWh of stored electricity. Another two batteries will take the total stored in five batteries to 10 kWh.
  • The house’s average daily electricity use is about 3kWh.
  • With care the batteries will give between three to four, perhaps five days of electricity with no charging from the sun assuming – and this is a very big assumption – they’re full when the weather turns rainy for five days. “Care” means keeping an eye on the amount of energy in the batteries and reducing energy use when they’re low or using lots of energy when the sun is providing more energy than the batteries can store. When there’s more energy than the batteries can store the system “sheds” or wastes it unless there’s an appliance which is turned on at that time to use that excess energy.
  • When the batteries are charged from the grid it can put in 0.5kW/hour per battery. As the batteries are 2.4kWh of capacity each, we can roughly say that each battery requires five hours of charge from the grid before they reach full capacity. Charging from solar will not have this limitation.
  • The batteries have a 20-year warranty.
  • The system supplier said if I wished to purchase a generator I should buy one with a capacity of 3000-4000W inverter generator. If it were used I would be using a “fair bit of fuel” as the system will pull maximum power, and will generate noise that my neighbours may not appreciate. The supplier recommended having the generator at the backyard and running a long extension lead to the inlet; in my house that’s about 30 metres.
  • Interesting aside: a lithium battery can take five or more kg weight off a motorbike thereby giving the bike longer trips than was achieved with the heavier lead acid batteries.
  • The weight of each lithium ion battery is 22kg, making it feasible to store the combined weight of the batteries on the first floor balcony of the terrace house; a comparable lead acid battery system would have weighed a tonne or more.

Michael’s books, Sustainable House and Sustainable Food are practical guides to designing, living and eating sustainably and he offers tours of his house and systems: www.sustainablehouse.com.au

7 replies on “Favourites: Michael Mobbs: Disconnected Part 2 – The sun and me”

  1. Seems to me the real experiment here is with the Chinese batteries…off-grid is not hard to achieve or unusual. Ive been living off-grid for 7 years now with a solar system patched together from used panels, used back-up system batteries and a beautiful ( but expensive) Australian produced inverter. No engineer required, though I did hire an electrician to set it all up.
    Rainwater collection with a household use tank on a stand to create gravity pressure has been in use in Au for a very long time. Only need to pump up to the tank occasionally, or use a windmill.
    Hot water from a donkey heater in summer and a wood fired cooking stove with a water jacket used to be in every home in Australia. Today, viable hot water systems are available on eBay. In a pinch, solar camper showers are readily available and cheap.
    Longdrop toilets are still in use in most National Parks and remote areas; composting toilets are increasingly common.
    I think that you do a disservice to “the Cause” by making it sound like it is technically challenging to go off grid.
    It’s not that hard, and getting cheaper.

    1. Hi, Suzanne, Great to have your example and feedback; thank you. Some of the design criteria for the project here included: no lead acid batteries (due to higher maintenance, higher embodied energy, poor recycling industry track record, large footprint to set up and maintain, to manage fire risk they need to be segregated, very high weight which means they can’t go on many house structures such as mine without shoring, a plug and play and simple – really simple – monitoring and maintenance system). I guess that living in a terrace in the inner city, as I do, is in one way a gift because it helps bring a clear discipline and scope to the design criteria. I’ll keep you and everyone else informed on the progress and technology of the systems here including the new 327 watt panels which deliver more than that and have ‘mini’ control systems in each panel. Let’s keep swapping stories, best regards, Michael

      1. There are LiFePO4 battery systems made by companies with a decent track record, for example Victron. They in fact make an excellent hybrid grid system which you install between your grid tie inverter and the grid which captures the energy it needs to run your house overnight and then only feeds the excess. If it runs out of energy then it automatically swaps back to the grid if it is available. This product would make an excellent stepping stone to off grid because you could add batteries and adjust your behaviour until you fit within the capacity of the system and then go fully off grid. Until that point you get grid feed for your excess and the safety net of the grid if you run out of capacity.

  2. Brad. And we have a winner! You, Brad. Well done. The next tour is Sat 2 May, from 1130 to 1230 – details on my website. Hope that works for you. Michael

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