What to do if ... you want to live off-grid

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The Independent Online

Michael Rea, 64, and his wife Dot retired to the Shetland island of Unst in 2001 and now live in a zero-carbon house. In the past year, the couple have lived near off-grid, with heating costs of just 50p a day for their 180sq m home in the most northerly part of the British Isles

"We had always wanted to live in a truly sustainable way and we decided that we wanted to put a lot of energy-efficient technology into the house.

"I'd read a lot of articles on climate change and I could see that probably in my lifetime there were going to have to be major changes in the way that we live, because we cannot go on consuming materials at the rate we've been consuming them.

"At that point we weren't actually considering erecting a demonstration project. I always think out of the box; I don't like to do what everybody else does. So I started researching, and then I found out about [AIM-listed company] Energy for Sustainable Development. We had meetings and it went from there. We wanted to show that anybody could build a zero-carbon house – we didn't want it to be a 'grand design', we didn't want it to be an expensive build, we wanted to keep it within the reach of anybody who could afford a modest mortgage. And we wanted to show that everything we'd installed in the house was within reach of people. Now, with the energy we generate from wind and solar power, we are at the stage where we should be able to go completely off-grid this year. We may even be able to supply some of our surplus power to our neighbours on the island.

"Of course, with climate change happening we get residual aftermath of hurricanes that emanate from the Caribbean, so you have to ensure that whatever you build is going to stand up to the most severe wind conditions you can imagine... the rain can be horizontal and the wind absolutely unbelievable. You will not get anywhere more severe in the UK than Unst; it is freezing cold outside now – but in the summer it is paradise.

"I think the low point was when I had to do quite a lot of the physical work myself. I'm not a young man anymore – I should have done this when I was 30. One of the most demanding things, at 64 years old, is walking around with huge blocks of stone and dry-stone walling, I didn't expect to have to do that – and trench digging and all sorts of physical tasks – at my age. The high points are that everything has achieved what I originally thought it would. And the other nice thing is that we can help people when they want information, because otherwise they think they've got to go to a consultant and they get ripped off.

"We've got these rogues, well they're not rogues, they're thieves, liars and cheats, cheating people out of very large sums of money. I got an email a few months ago from a gentleman who'd spent £17,500 on solar pipes when he thought he was spending £17,500 on photovoltaic (PV) cells.

"A house such as mine should only cost about £200,000 to build, and I spend hours each day replying to emails from people seeking advice on becoming self-sufficient. What we've learnt over the past two years is that there is a hunger from people to know what they can to do to reduce their carbon footprint and their energy bills; we have a massive number of emails from all over the world.

"My most valuable advice would be to insulate your house well. Choose the right sort of insulation for your house and go for something that is green-certified. Don't be put off by cost – you don't need to spend a fortune to make your house energy-efficient. Explore the different types of heat pumps available. And, finally, beware of cowboys selling high-priced products that may not be what you actually need.

"This is probably the biggest single project I've ever done, but, of course, if we can do it here, where everything has had to be imported on to the island, then anyone can do it elsewhere. I advise visiting my website zerocarbonhouse. com for more information."