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.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Farming In Another World - Off-grid in­staller Mur­ray Wil­lis.

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.”

Black to ba­sics: one of the great colours for New Zealand.

RIGHT, TOP TO BOT­TOM: The open air beauty of a barn struc­ture; a bed­room with the feel of an art gallery; pull up a chair for the en­ter­tain­ment; nat­u­ral wood works won­ders.

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