Living off the grid is a realistic goal for many

Tyler Clarke

Physically worn out from travelling by vehicle and plane to a remote home in northern Saskatchewan, two scholars passed through Prince Albert on their way back south last week.

Although exhausted, (Royal Roads University alumnus) Jonathan Taggart and (Royal Roads University professor) Phillip Vannini retained their enthusiasm during a discussion with the Daily Herald about their book deal and documentary film about Canadians who live off the grid.

“It’s a really positive story,” Vannini said. “Everyone who we met really enjoy their lifestyle, so it’s a good message to share that renewable energy is not bad for you.”

The motivation for living off the grid, which is defined as being disconnected from utilities such as water and electricity, vary from person to person, the Royal Roads University professor explained.

“For some, it’s a will to reduce their carbon footprint, so it’s an environmental motivation,” he said. “For some, it’s a lifestyle called voluntary simplicity.”

This, he explained, is when people come to believe that the world is too complex and consumption-orientated.

Living off the grid, then, “pushes you back to the basics” Vannini explained. “You step back and ask yourself, ‘what is it that I really need?’”

For most people, living off the grid comes as a result of the fact that utilities are too far away, and therefore too expensive to link up to.

“So, they say, ‘I’m going to spend $30,000 and never pay bills for the rest of my life,’” Vannini said.

Living about 100 kilometres away from the nearest road in the La Ronge area, Ron Melchiore and his wife are in this situation.

The two off-the-grid enthusiasts have lived that way for about 30 years, including the last 13 at their current home. They hosted Taggart and Vannini for a few days last week. The two scholars flew in on a private plane, which landed on a frozen lake. 

“The previous 20 years we perfected our skills to make the move to this location, “ Melchiore explained in email correspondence with the Daily Herald.

“This included mastering skills like gardening, food canning and storage, butchering, smoking and curing hams and bacon, soap making, being versed in electrical, plumbing, construction and sewing,” he wrote, beginning his list of skills.

The couple fly in and out on a private plane about twice per year for supplies, and their house, complete with electricity, satellite Internet, hot and cold running water, is set up “so that a visitor would never know they are so remote,” Melchiore wrote.

They use solar energy, which has yet to let them down, ne noted.

By inviting Taggart and Vannini out to visit them for a few days for their book and film project, Melchiore said that he hoped to dispel some misconceptions about living off the grid, such as the idea that alternative energy doesn’t work or make sense.

Everyone who we met really enjoy their lifestyle, so it’s a good message to share that renewable energy is not bad for you. - Phillip Vannini

“Since we’ve been doing it for about 34 years (including a previous home), we can add an experienced voice to the debate and say without a doubt, alternative energy works just fine,” he wrote.

Although Melchiore and his wife live in a remote location, not everyone who lives off the grid is away from civilization, Vannini noted.

In fact, those who life in urban centres have an advantage over their rural or ultra-rural counterparts, he said.

“Everyone who lives off the grid rurally has a car, so they need to rely on gasoline a lot, whereas if you life in the city, you can just bike the grocery store,” he said.

“They’re living in super-efficient houses, so their cost to the grid … if they were attached to the grid, would be minimal,” Taggart added.

This, he said, ties into an underlying environment-centred motivation behind the book and film project.

“We, as a society, are constantly reminded that the future carries a lot of risk – energy supplies are dwindling, fuel costs are going up, and we’re constantly told that in the future we’ll have to make sacrifices,” Vannini said.

“We wanted to look into the lifestyles the people that are attacking today the energy problems of tomorrow.”

Although not everyone is willing to live off the grid, there are many things people can do to reduce their reliance on electricity, natural gas and water utilities.

Passive solar energy is one of countless examples, Taggart explained, adding that it’s as simple as building your house to face the sun with as many windows as possible.

“It’s designing your house to take advantage of the sun, without you having to actively do anything other than build a house,” he said.

“Most of the homes we life in are generally built to face the street, regardless of which direction they’re facing,” Vannini added.

The sometimes-wasteful nature of our society can also be re-evaluated through the lessons learned from those who life off the grid -- particularly those who live in remote areas, Taggart said.

“The amount of foresight to do all of your grocery shopping for six months in one plane trip is amazing,” he said.

“I think that practice really serves to strip the unnecessaries from your life. What will fit in a plan in September? If I don’t need it, what else can I put in there that I do need?”

Vannini and Taggart’s book and film are scheduled to be complete by the end of the year, with both projects’ release scheduled for some time next year.