On island, off grid In June 2014,
There’s no such thing as a power cut on Great Barrier; if the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, there’s plenty of free power for everyone.
cyclonestrength winds battered the Auckland region. More than 60,000 houses lost electricity and with it, heat, hot water and cooking facilities. Food festered in defunct freezers, traffic lights died and reduced commuter traffic to a cautious crawl, computers became useless, and panic buying stripped supermarket shelves. Civil Defence officials fretted about declaring a state of emergency while power line workers were still struggling, two days later, to reconnect some suburbs.
Almost 100km to the east, Great Barrier Island sustained the same battering. Almost every road was washed out, and the network of DOC tracks which weave round the convoluted coastline and mountainous hinterland were decimated.
But nobody lost power, food stayed frozen and some people rejoiced at the job opportunities that repair work would bring to the island. Afterwards they took to chainsaws and shovels to clean everything up.
Despite its proximity to Auckland, Great Barrier is one of the most remote locations in the country. The journey to Auckland traverses through the frequently turbulent Colville Channel, and residents of the island are imbued with a hardy self-reliance and a pride in their independence. Unlike Stewart Island, where mains power is reticulated from a diesel generation plant, every household on Great Barrier provides its own power.
“It’s part of the Barrier’s tradition of independence and ingenuity,” says Murray Willis, who has installed many of the sustainable energy solutions.
“About 500 households on the island are completely self-sufficient in energy, using either solar, wind or water power – I’ve installed about 350 of those.”
Many of those systems were installed under the auspices of the Rural Electrical Reticulation Council, a 1987 government initiative which used 0.1% from every unit of electricity bought in New Zealand to subsidise power supplies to remote areas.
“It was great,” says Murray. “We were putting power on for people who had only ever used candles or kerosene lamps, and wood fires for cooking. Old ladies who had never had electricity – they would turn the switch on and their faces would be awestruck. They couldn’t stop grinning. They would go away, then come back and switch it on again to make sure it was still working.”
A subsequent government wiped out the scheme so the islanders had to go it alone again, manufacturing their own energy generating systems. Wind generators locally made in the 1970s from washing machine motors and scrap car wheel hubs, with propellers made of aluminium pipe, are still in use.
A few years ago, Great Barrier people were canvassed to find out how many of them would use mains reticulated electricity from the mainland if it was made available. Ninety-eight percent voted to stand alone.
“Why change?” asks Murray. “We’re years ahead of the rest of the country.”
DOC’S island headquarters has been sustainably powered for years, and all the emergency services, including police and Great Barrier Maritime Radio are solarpowered. Murray proudly points to the success of Aotea FM.
“We’re the only place in the world with a solar-powered FM radio station,” he says. The delightfully quirky community broadcaster features, among others, Adam from Okupu, Nikki of Angel’s Love of Horses, and Henry’s Happy Hour over 94.6 and 104 mhz frequencies.
“Renewable energy systems are always compared, in price and reliability, with mains power so they have to work properly,” says Murray. “You have to consider the power system as an integral part of the building. The battery capacity is the heart of the system so always use the best quality you can afford.”
He and wife Jan installed a solar and wind powered system at their Whangaparapara cottage 25 years ago and used it to run the power tools needed to build their adjacent house.
“We’ve got a diesel generator as back up – I start it once a month to make sure it still works – but we haven’t used it in years.”
Summer weather has been getting wetter so Murray has also installed a Pelton wheel generator in a nearby creek.
“Fridges and lights are the only components made to run off sustainable power,” he says. “Water heating is a big power user. We use a wetback off the wood stove, but we don’t run heat pumps, underfloor heaters, heated towel rails, and haven’t got a heated pool. But so what? That’s a small price to pay for being self-reliant.
“In power supply terms, Great Barrier is already where the rest of the western world is struggling, trying to achieve.” n
requires in the future, we could definitely add on. My vision would be to create ‘barn pods’ which would be done by the use of interconnecting glass breezeways.
“As dreams are free, I already have the concepts and interiors planned.”
For those looking at taking on a building project, Sue has some very definite advice.
“Realise the big vision if you can, and listen to those who can help you through this process. Think carefully how you live and what you want to achieve in building and creating your new home. I not only did the interior layout but all the design elements.
“If this isn’t your ‘thing’, Customkit can help you achieve a great finished product and suggest other businesses that can help out.”