Leading the (solar) charge

Twelve years ago Steven Moore left the grid and began producing his own sustainable energy

Business professor Steven Moore says anyone can operate their own power system.
Business professor Steven Moore says anyone can operate their own power system.

Economic times may be tough, but School of Business professor Steven Moore knows what to do. He’s going underground.

Nearly 13 years after Moore and his family left the Ontario power grid in favour of a more sustainable, solar-powered life on a farm in Tamworth, he and his wife are finishing plans for a new house that will be embedded in the earth.

“Basically, your heating and air condition are free; there are no drafts; you don’t have to worry about thunderstorms; you don’t have to put on a roof; you don’t have to put on siding,” Moore said. “Yet, if you design it right, there is more light and more ventilation than in a conventional house.”

It may sound counter-intuitive to those accustomed to surface-dwelling, but from Moore’s perspective, it makes perfect sense.

“In this climate I don’t really think it makes sense to build a house above ground. Then you’re having to fight the elements all year.” For Moore, this is just the next logical step toward sustainability. In 1996, while he and his family still lived in Oakville, he was involved in environmental causes, fighting against pesticide use and harmful emissions in the community.

“We were always moving in that direction,” he said. “We thought it would be fun to try to do it ourselves.”

After searching for land to build on or a house to retrofit, Moore, his wife and their two children found a small country home in Tamworth, north of Kingston, where one woman had been living off the grid for 30 years.

“We had a much larger family so we enlarged the house a little bit,” he said.

They updated the battery charger so they could fill the solar powered batteries to capacity, allowing them to store more power for use in overcast weather. They also added two more solar modules to the array, increasing power production by 50 per cent.

Today, the house is powered by 18 DC solar panels. It’s also equipped with a back-up propane generator for use primarily during the greyest months of the year, November to March, when the solar panels aren’t enough.

Even with these duties, the Moore’s average annual utility costs came to about $2,000 for the 3,000-square-foot house.

“Just through our experience and sort of realizing our power usage, we made lot of changes,” he said. “But I think the most important thing was that we discovered that we could easily live on one-fifth the power of a normal house and we had everything everybody else had.” The family uses all the amenities of modern life, including a washer and dryer, microwave, computer and stereo.

“There’s no reason why everybody can’t do that. That’s the interesting part. It goes way beyond just changing your light bulbs,” he said. “If more people could do that, I don’t think we’d have the kind of power issues we have in Ontario right now.”

The family bought the house for $80,000 in 1996 and, all told, spent about $20,000 installing and updating the systems necessary to power it.

Moore said cost is always the first thing people ask about, but he thinks it’s the wrong question to ask.

“Nobody ever asks when they buy an automobile, ‘What is the payback time?’ Nobody asks when they put in an air conditioning system, ‘What’s the payback time?’ Why is it that people are concerned about the payback time of being sensitive to the environment when they aren’t concerned about the payback time of things like automobiles and air conditioning?”

He said the mindset that makes money the most important thing is probably what created the problems he’s trying to combat.

“Once you buy it, that’s it. There are no hydro bills or anything. Compare that to the multi-billion-dollar cost of a nuclear power plant and the waste we still don’t know what to do with.” There’s more than one benefit to living independent of the province’s power supply, he said.

“We certainly would have a psychological advantage knowing we weren’t necessarily contributing to power plant emissions and global warming, that sort of thing.” One of the most significant benefits of living off the grid became apparent during the ice storm of 1998.

“I guess there were a couple of days there when the phone went out because it was coated with ice,” he said. “We could go out and it just sounded like gunshots with all the trees falling, but we were impacted very little.” Breaking down the grid into smaller pieces may be one of the keys to improving sustainability, Moore said.

“It seems like every time we tie things up in bigger and bigger systems, all we do is spread the damage.”

The family monitored all the systems itself, each member always aware of how much power they had, how much they were using and how much they needed. Everyone could benefit from so intimate a knowledge of their consumption, Moore said.

“One of the problems living in the city and having other people taking care of your systems, you start to give that responsibility to other people rather than assume it yourself. You just assume that someone else is going to take care of you.”

He said it’s eye-opening in other ways too.

“You’re much more mindful of the weather. You’re much more mindful of our impact on the world, which is a great side-effect.” And there was never any quibbling on the part of family members about their responsibilities, Moore said.

“The family dynamic worked out really well. Everybody pitched in; everybody had a job. They were mindful of their impact; they knew the family counted on them for various things, that they were an important component. They weren’t just yakking on cell phones and going off to the mall and being completely narcissistic. They knew we counted on them to contribute. It was really not a problem at all. They would remind us to turn off the light. There were never any complaints about living off the grid. None.”

The biggest challenge, Moore said, was putting the system together, bit-by-bit.

“Now it’s pretty easy,” he said. “Anyone can operate their own power system. It’s really not very difficult. I mean, we knew nothing when we started. It’s a piece of cake really.” Once the power systems were in place, the family began raising livestock in addition to growing much of their own food.

“I think the best part is just the satisfaction in learning about this and being able to pull it off because there were times when we thought, ‘Oh my God—what a big mistake we’ve made,’ and we were just bumbling about and it all worked out,” he said. “Also having the feeling that we’re living lightly that we’re not big consumers, that we’re not big wasters. I think that’s part of it too.”

The farm in Tamworth sold recently for approximately four times the amount the Moores paid for it.

“We’ll invest much less than that in the new one,” Moore said.

The new house will be dug out of the side of a hill on the banks of the Salmon River in Tamworth, with two sides covered and two made of glass. Across the river is a restored mill, which will provide the bulk of the energy for the house.

“That mill will generate enough energy for five or six houses,” Moore said, adding that he and his wife hope to cut their energy consumption in half.

“We may end up at about one tenth the energy use of a normal house.”

The house will be smaller than farm house—about 2,000 square feet—and use hydro power to help them meet their goal.

“You get 10 times more power for every dollar invested than you do in solar power. Right now the only problem is there aren’t many good sites.”

In terms of property value these days, he said, water is one of the greatest assets for the environmentally-conscious builder.

“A stream running through your property is gold in terms of generating power.”

The earth covering half the house will moderate the temperature, decreasing the need for heating and cooling. The shade from deciduous trees on the south side will help cool the house in summer and passive solar heat—energy absorbed through the glass front of the building—will help heat the place.

“Basically, the sun heats something in the house, some big, heavy, massive thing in the house like a floor or a masonry wall and, at night, that floor radiates the heat back to the house,” Moore said, adding that there’s nothing high-tech about the design.

“That’s the way houses were heated for 30,000 years before we had central heating, so we’re just going to use that technology.”

Hot water will also be used for radiant floor heating.

“Solar hot water is the simplest, most effective first thing you can do to reduce your energy use,” he said.

The project will use a large amount of reclaimed materials, including timber from old local barns and wood from an airplane hangar built in Ottawa in 1918, Moore said.

“Part of it is the energy; part of it is trying to fit in with the landscape.” The stone for the masonry work will come from the site itself.

Moore has been sharing details of his project with the students in his communication and sustainability courses at Queen’s, and the latter group will have a tour of the house and the mill when it’s complete. He said now is certainly the time to educate and pass on what he has learned.

“We have to change the way we’re operating or we’re going to be in really big trouble,” he said. “Canadians are the largest per capita users of energy in the world. It’s not even so much that we live in a cold climate anymore. It’s just that we seem to like to use a lot of energy for everything. We keep our houses too warm in the winter and too cold in the summer. It really adds up.”

Moore will write a blog about his experiences building his new house and sustainability issues on the website for Kingston Life magazine.

As for drawbacks to living off the grid, Moore paused before answering. He started to speak but stopped, pausing for a few more seconds.

“I don’t know if there is really a big drawback. I’d have to think about that actually.”

He said he’s looking forward to the new setting.

“The river is very fast where we’re building, so we’ll always hear the river where we are. We’ll be able to go down and stick our feet in the river. It will be quite nice, I think.”

Please see Friday’s paper for part one of the Journal’s three-part Day in the Life feature series.

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