Across Europe and North America, more and more people are choosing to give up their dependency on public utilities such as water, gas and electricity in order to live and work independently. And they do so for a variety of reasons – wanting to connect with nature, be more self-sufficient, conserve energy, or generally live a more sustainable lifestyle are just a few of them.
In the Netherlands, this type of housing is increasingly seen as an attractive and viable option; The subreddit r/Netherlands has an entire thread dedicated to self-sustaining living, and in 2016 the Netherlands became home to the first high-tech pilot off-grid ecovillage developed by ReGen Villages.
“When COVID struck, there was an exodus from urban areas almost overnight. People wanted to move to the suburbs or the country because they wanted to feel like they could take care of themselves,” says founder James Ehrlich.
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ReGen created the “Village OS” software, which not only uses machine learning to design and plan off-grid neighborhoods, but also acts as a local server, monitoring the village’s infrastructure for risks and improvements. This “digital twin,” Ehrlich told TNW, “can, if you will, understand the different food streams in the neighborhood.”
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Ehrlich knows how to develop off-grid communities that house 400-500 homes and plans the various systems that come into play including food, electricity and water, so it’s safe to say he’s an expert on off-grid living . We asked him: How can the average techie live off-grid?
When it comes to actually powering your off-grid home, there are a few different options.
First, Ehrlich tells TNW, whether you’re retrofitting your traditional home to make it less dependent on public utilities or building an off-grid home from the ground up, it’s worth investigating how you can improve its energy efficiency.
Your traditional brick Dutch terraced house is an energy sieve. But by adding south-facing glazing at the back, like a small greenhouse attached to the back of the house, you can improve the R-value [or insulation] of the house as a whole. It generates heat that comes back into the house and creates a little moisture, which is very comfortable in the dry winters. You can grow things there, it’s a nice place to sit, coffee, tea, whatever.
Perhaps one of the most common and increasingly affordable off-grid energy sources is photovoltaic (PV) or solar panels. Solar panels allow you to capture sunlight, convert it into electricity and store it in a battery.
“Solar voltaic is something that many people use to supplement the power supply in their home, but also as a means of powering their electric vehicle,” says Ehrlich. “There are several companies that have this type of battery storage now, so the technology will only get better. This means [people living off-grid are] able to reduce their overall energy consumption.”
But solar panels aren’t the only option, nor are they the best for regions that don’t see much sunlight (ahem, the Netherlands).
“People who live in a moderately windy area could put up a small wind turbine that doesn’t vibrate and doesn’t make a lot of noise,” Ehrlich says. “They’re a bit more expensive and the efficiency isn’t quite there yet, but they’re getting better. The point is that they can be a supplement to battery storage when you’re not getting a lot of sun.”
There have also been a number of smart composting technologies in recent years that are far less smelly.
When considering wind turbines, it pays to read local government guidelines like the US Department of Energy checklist, which asks questions such as your area.
“Wind turbine technologies are getting better, smaller, bladeless, silent, and easy to fold up in storms or bad weather,” says Ehrlich.
EVs themselves can also be used as a power source by acting as bi-directional chargers. Many EVs, including several Kia models, are V2D-enabled, meaning they act as large batteries that can power electronic devices from an internal or external outlet.
Other types of bi-directional chargers are V2G (EVs that export energy to support electric grids), V2H (EVs that can power homes), and V2L (EVs that can power appliances or other EVs). For example, the Kia EV9, due to launch in 2023, will have Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) functionality, meaning your car can feed energy into the grid when demand is high.
food and waste
Living off the grid can also extend to creating a self-sufficient food source. In fact, one of the earliest inspirations for ReGen Villages came from Ehrlich’s encounter with a biodynamic farming community.
I stumbled across this beautiful Northern California community of organic, biodynamic, small family farmers and started learning about ecovillages. These wonderful little communities had basically cobbled together passive house technology combined with heat exchange using early solar PV panels, solar thermal and other things like biowaste, anaerobic digestion, biomass and biogas. I have been truly blown away by the resilience these measures are able to maintain and the delicious food produced locally.
Ehrlich has developed a system for ReGen Villages that is based on “a combination of uncultivated soil management with at least one to two meters of good topsoil [and] Permaculture, essentially creating a fully edible neighborhood. You replace the foliage with things you can eat wherever possible.
Over time, these orchards and food forests really start to produce and overproduce. We combine this with controlled environmental husbandry, either in heated or unheated greenhouses, depending on where in the world we are. In addition, we also include aquaponics and aquaculture systems, freshwater shrimp and various fish species.”
Boiling water is slow and inefficient considering how much you use on a daily basis.
For a person who wants to move off-grid but not join an eco-village, the same principles apply, Ehrlich says: “We strongly recommend that people replace their lawns where possible so that they are fertile.” This also has profound social implications . “When enough people do it, you start having that dialogue with your neighbors about what you produce, what you have extra, and what they have extra. We see that in our community.”
Ehrlich also mentions “light animal farms” such as chicken coops, a single cow, or smaller flocks and herds of sheep, goats, and turkeys — and not just as a source of food.
The animal waste is actually a food and nutritional source for the vermiculture. Anaerobic fermentation begins. You also get heat and energy from the anaerobic digestion produced by compost heaps. In addition, black soldier fly larvae and waterworms eat their own weight in food and animal waste on a daily basis. They then become the perfect food for chickens, fish and other small animals. So it really is an amazing circle of life.
There are traditional composting methods for individuals looking to go off-grid, but in recent years there have also been a number of smart consumer composting technologies that are far less smelly and can be brought indoors or into urban settings.
Access to clean water is an incredibly important aspect of off-grid living and, well, basic survival.
While boiling water can help purify water, it’s slow and inefficient given the amount of water you need daily to stay hydrated, bathe, and more.
There are many consumer-oriented water filtration systems that remove viruses, bacteria, and pathogens at all price points. Several blogs about off-grid living have reviews of various water filtration methods and hardware.
An off-grid future
As Ehrlich points out, many of these off-grid systems and technologies have actually been around for a long time:
When my father was a kid in the early 30’s, he vividly remembered electric vehicles in New York City being used for ice cream deliveries, taxi cabs and small buses. But there were very powerful interests that didn’t want to see that people could potentially generate their own electricity, run their own vehicles, and have no need for oil changes, tuning, etc.
Buckminster Fuller, an American architect, once said:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
With consumer hardware evolving and communities like ReGen Villages increasingly normalizing off-grid living, an off-grid future isn’t as far away as we might think.