Today is the shortest day of the year. It is also the darkest day of the year; it is the winter solstice. As I write these words we have just turned the corner and from now on the days will gradually be growing longer as each one passes by.
Christmas and the New Year are just around the corner. Here on the island the woodshed is full, the freezers, the fridge and the pantry are full; we have heat, we have food. We also have light. Tomorrow I will decorate a sweet scented pine tree with a string of glowing, coloured lights. The evolution of light in our island home is on my mind today as I write on my computer by the light of several electric ceiling fixtures in the living area of our home while the stereo repeatedly plays a (new to me) favourite CD, borrowed from the library (Sixto Rodriguez’s Cold Fact). We look forward to the lengthening days ahead.
Light is vital to our comfortable existence on the island. One is especially aware of this during these very short, dark days of winter. If we had to rely on daylight alone to see us through our winter days, we would be sleeping sixteen hours a day! That would almost be hibernation. Life would be very dull indeed.
To me, living off the grid mostly means living without a public electrical system. In the old days, before we made our own electricity, there were candles for light. When it got dark, one soon went to bed and slept until daylight arrived the following morning. The smelly, smoky kerosene lanterns were the next step in the evolution of light in our island home, and they were not much better than a candle. Back then our eyes were younger and stronger; we could read by the light of the kerosene lamp, if we had to.
Next there was a series of propane lights placed strategically around the house, two to begin with; one over the kitchen stove, another over the chesterfield at the other end of the room. Our younger eyes could see well enough and enough light was shed from these gas lights that we were able to read longer into the winter evenings.
About the time the first propane lights were installed there also came the desire for other modern conveniences that required electricity to function; a radio, a cassette tape player, an electric washing machine, a television (with an old fashioned antenna and three channels), some electrical woodworking tools, an electric sewing machine. A small gas generator was purchased and suddenly there was also the potential for electric light. A small fluorescent tube that cast an eerie light over the kitchen sink was the first to be installed.
The house was originally wired to run off a 12 volt system. A car battery could be charged while the generator was running, perhaps earlier in the day while doing a load of laundry. In the evenings, after a candle or gas-lit supper at the kitchen table, one could watch the evening news on the telly and later read in bed by the faint glow of a single 12 volt light bulb, powered with the stored electricity from the 12 volt battery. Eventually, the generating system was upgraded to a 2 cylinder Lister diesel generator, along with a larger, heavier, longer lasting marine battery, and much later a bank of six 2 volt deep cycle fork lift batteries.
Time went on. The family grew. The house grew as well. It was fitted with 110 volt wiring in tandem with the 12 volt system, so you could use one or the other depending on whether or not the generator was running (110 volt) or you were operating off the previously charged battery bank (12 volt).
The electrical appliances multiplied, mostly in the workshop with additional power tools, and in the house with an electric mixer, a blender, a vacuum cleaner. We acquired more lamps for reading and doing homework and we even had special strings of lights to add sparkle to our Christmas trees. Electrical appliances that have heating elements (irons, toasters, clothes dryers, hot water heaters) used far too much electricity for our off grid system and we did not use them. We were conscious of the power being used and we took care to turn off the lights as we left a room.
C. always seemed to be thinking about ways to make our lives better, brighter, less expensive, more convenient. As technology evolved so did we and eventually we got onto the notion of even more alternative energy systems. The first bit of equipment for our modern electrical system was a small water turbine, by the name of a Stream Machine, also known as a Pelton wheel. This amazing device is about the size of a pressure cooker, and is housed in a small shed built specifically for the purpose, situated beside the creek that flows past our house.
About 1800 feet of heavy 2 inch PVC pipe runs from a water hole in the creek farther upstream, carrying water to the little turbine, where it is forced through a small nozzle and into the turbine. The jet of water causes the turbine to spin at a very high rpm, creating energy that is transformed into electricity by the alternator which is part and parcel of the Pelton wheel. The water passing through the turbine returns to the stream through a chute in the back of the shed, before it continues on its journey to the mouth of the stream and out to sea.
The electrical energy produced by the Stream Machine passes through a cable running to our house, where it is hooked up to the bank of fork lift batteries stored there. The electricity stored in these batteries then passes through an inverter which converts it into the 110 volt power required by our appliances and devices. So much excess power is generated by the micro-hydro system when the stream is running full blast (when there is a lot of rainfall and the stream is in full spate) that we must constantly be using the electricity so that we do not overcharge the storage batteries. We have to dump excess power, and to do so we have a submersible heating coil inside our hot water storage tank that is automatically switched on by a charge controller, using that excess electrical energy to make hot water. There are various gauges, chargers, and remote indicators next to the bank of batteries under the house as well as in the kitchen, so one can keep an eye on how things are doing in the electrical department from both inside and out.
The next part of our electrical power puzzle came in the form of four solar panels which were set up along the sunny south facing bank above the shore in the front yard. Sometime later we added another pair of solar panels, and we have never looked back. As long as there is enough precipitation to keep the micro-hydro system running, or enough sunshine to keep the solar panels charging, or a bit of both, we have plenty of electricity for our domestic needs. We hardly ever have to run the generator anymore. Our diesel fuel bill for electrical generation has been reduced dramatically.
The power we use to light up our lives is mostly sustainable and renewable, drawn from the rain that falls from the skies above, or the sun when it shines. The equipment we have purchased to create it is readily available, easily installed and improving in capacity all the time. My wish for the coming New Year is that more people on this fragile planet of ours will discover for themselves that it is possible to burn fewer fossil fuels in order to light up their lives as well as we light up ours.