We had just put the kids to bed the other night when suddenly the house went eerily quiet. The fridge stopped humming, the kids’ noise machines switched off, and the few lights we had on went dark. The power had gone out. It had been overcast all day, and the charge in the solar battery that runs our household had dipped low enough to shut off. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, and certainly not the last. Such is life when you run 100% on your own solar power.
In this instance, we powered up the generator and burned some fossil fuels (gas is $9.16 USD a gallon on the island) to get enough power to float us through the evening. Other times we wait until the sun comes up again, warming the panels with its rays, revving up our wifi and lights again. But no matter how much sun there is, we’re always looking at how many watts each little thing is sucking up, never leaving a light on, and using the microwave and toaster sparingly.
In fact, the toaster itself is a luxury, and is our most power-hungry appliance. Plenty of folks on the island toast their bread on a metal frame over the gas burner, but we love toast too much. So when we arrived in New Zealand I set about finding the lowest wattage toaster I could. Turns out the cheap ones are the best for that, clocking in at 800 watts (a noise machine uses 5 watts, a vitamix uses 1400 watts, and a dryer uses 1800 - 5000 watts for reference). Picking out the toaster was the beginning of my awakening to how much power we actually use.
Back in the US when we lived “on the grid”, power was an after-thought. We’d leave our internet running all night while we slept, and lights along our stairwell glowed 24 hours a day. We used the dryer for every load of washing we did. Sometimes I would run a space heater to warm up the kids’ rooms in the winter. And, we’d run a fan all night simply for the white noise it provided. Without even realising it, we were gobbling up massive amounts of electricity in our old life. And we didn’t even have a TV (or a Vitamix).
I remember kayaking up in the Pacific Northwest once with orcas spouting off in the distance. Our guide explained the orca population had declined rapidly in recent decades. When we asked why, he said, “because we all like to watch our big screen TVs and turn on all our appliances.” What he meant was that the rivers all around had been dammed to create electricity, causing salmon populations to dwindle and the orcas to starve. My clothes dryer back home was literally killing killer whales.
Our way of life has changed now that we have to produce our own power off the grid, and it's made us "walk the walk" more in terms of thinking about the planet. We’d never dream of putting an incandescent bulb in one of our light fixtures. We carefully measured how much our new wifi system uses (less than they advertised!), and run it on a timer so that it shuts off overnight. We often read by headlamp in the evenings, and I can’t imagine using a clothes dryer now (even though sometimes I miss the convenience). As I mentioned previously, I don’t know anyone who uses a hair dryer on the island. And of course we have a gas oven, hard as they are to find (electric ovens eat up A TON of power!). There are almost no lights on across the island at night, making it a “dark-sky sanctuary” sought after for its star-gazing.
All of this has been on our minds as we ordered the solar panels we’ll need for our new house. It’s the first thing we plan to install. With electricity on our building site we’ll be able to use power tools, and we can route the excess power down to our current house so that we’ll be able to run a fan on hot nights without worrying we’ll drain the battery (luxury). Our system arrives in a few weeks, and Isaac has been working diligently to get ready for installation.
It’s hard to take anything for granted here, and so I’m filled with gratitude for the mundane things we enjoy each day thanks to electricity and the sun. A hot shower. Butter melting on a warm piece of toast. A glass of cold kombucha from the fridge. A fully-charged cell phone. It's less convenient to live this way by far. But if given the chance, I don’t know if I’d go back. I feel good that our family’s carbon footprint is lighter here, and I like knowing we generated all the power we use.
And, I like the orcas too much. Isaac and the kids saw one at our nearby beach the other day, and the frequent the harbour on the other side of the island. I’ll happily dry my clothes on the line for their sake.