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Changing regulations could cause off-grid “avalanche”

Solar panel suppliers in South Africa are predicting an “avalanche” going semi-off-grid or off-grid in response to new regulations that increase the costs of operating solar panels while attached to the grid.

According to the new regulations, 78-year-old Andrew Louwrens has an illegal solar electricity installation in his garden – despite having used solar panels since 2012.

Andrew, a retired SA Rugby administrator, received a letter from the City of Cape Town late last year ordering him to replace his illegal small-sale generation system – at his own expense – because it did not comply with regulations introduced after it was installed. Things got worse when, on Christmas eve, the council threatened to cut off his electricity if he didn’t comply.

“I installed the system in good faith in 2012. I was doing my bit for society,” Andrew said. “I also didn’t want big electricity bills when I retired, [and I have been] happily exporting excess electricity into the grid.”

Michel Malengret, an associate professor at the University of Cape Town, which owns the company that installed Andrew’s system, said the inverter he installed for Andrew had been approved globally, and at the time of installation there had been no local regulations.

“Using solar energy was very expensive then and government’s impression was that it would never happen,” Michel said.

Power utility Eskom said it viewed “the embedded generation connections, made without the required approval and permission, as illegal” and would not consider “retrospective applications”.

Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for energy, Xanthea Limberg, said residents had to ensure installations complied with standards and to replace non-compliant inverters with acceptable ones. But Michel argued that customers’ hands were tied by the expense of such replacements.

“Council only adopted regulations two years ago, so now those like Andrew who installed solar beforehand must fork out another R7000 for a new inverter. They must then pay a fixed charge of R13 a day for the ‘privilege’ of exporting excess energy into the grid,” he said.

Andrew and Michel suggest people in the same situation go partially on and off the grid, and stock up on batteries to store electricity.

Michel said that although Eskom had made it “virtually impossible” for “solar guys to work with the grid” he predicted there would be “an avalanche” of people going off the grid as the price of batteries came down.

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Meg with husband in tiny house
People

Getting hooked on tiny houses

American architect and designer Meg Stevens was “immediately hooked” on tiny houses when she discovered them five years ago. She set a plan in motion to design and build her own tiny house – which was realized last year when she moved into The Lucky Linden, a tiny house RV measuring about 170 square feet.

Meg grew up in Michigan in a neighborhood under construction. Spending her spare time helping her dad with building projects, her interest in architecture, design and building was piqued at an early age. When she became interested in tiny houses in 2013, she purchased a ticket to a workshop at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, an organisation focused on designing tiny house RVs, in order to learn more about the process. She ended up being hired as an architect, and her Lucky Linden RV design is one she created for the company – with a few changes made to suit her (and her husband Dan’s) personal living style.

“We decided to build a tiny house about five years ago, and immediately started planning (and saving up money),” Meg said. “We didn’t want to go into debt for the house, so I would work on the build as we had the funds, and put it into storage while saving up for the next phase. It took three years to build this way, and it was in storage for stretches of time from six months to over a year.”

“While we were building, we gradually downsized until we were living in a 330 sq ft studio apartment,” she said. “The apartment was just a bit over double the size of the tiny house, so when we finally finished the build and moved in to the tiny house it wasn’t much of an adjustment at all. We love it!”

Tiny houses can be anything smaller than the normal for family size, according to Meg. A four-person family living in a 600 sq ft house is tiny, because there is only 250 sq ft per person. But conventionally – at least in terms of the growing Tiny House Movement across the US – a tiny house is between 100 and 400 sq ft. And the majority of them are built for off-grid living.

Meg, a prominent member of the Tiny House Movement – a community of like-minded individuals across the US advocating tiny houses as energy efficient living spaces – says the American tiny house community has experienced “rapid, almost exponential growth” in the last four years, owing to environmental concerns, financial issues as the cost of living rises, and the desire for more time and freedom.

“Designing especially is more difficult in a small space, but it’s rewarding. Efficiency is everything, and really considering ‘needs’ vs ‘wants’ vs ‘nice-to-haves,’” Meg said.

“Tiny houses are more energy efficient just because of their size, but also I think the general …

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Land

Catch me if you Spam

Con man James Hogue, famous for impersonating a Princeton student in the 1990s, has been found living in an illegally built cabin on Aspen Mountain in Colorado and running a social media business selling stolen goods via Ebay.

Police speculated that James, 57, had been living in the off-grid cabin on Shadow Mountain – a rather good address for a fugitive, on the westernmost peak of Aspen Mountain – for up to two years before an officer knocked on his door in September 2016. James ducked out the window and disappeared into the woods. The shack, which was allegedly built with materials and tools stolen from local construction sites, was (sadly) torn down by city parks department employees.

The fully enclosed, insulated cabin was built on a foundation and featured a window in the corner and a front door with two locks and a two-by-four across the door for security. The entrance, near one of the mountain lifts, was well camouflaged in the thick bush. The cabin was covered with black spray-paint designs on its plywood siding.

James, a latter day version of  Frank Abagnale Jr, portrayed in the movie Catch me if you Can starring Leonardo di Caprio, was arrested two months later when Aspen Skiing Co. employees saw him trying to build another cabin in the same area – he had dug out a 6-foot hole nearby for a new foundation and had started rebuilding near the remains of his old cabin. The work was in early stages and not easily hidden by its surroundings.

Aspen police officer Dan Davis took James into custody in a public library.
“[James] saw the officer’s uniform and it was like an ‘Oh crap’ moment for him,” Dan told the Aspen Times.
“He said his name was David Bee … from Ontario [Canada]. But I knew it was him. I said, ‘We’ll figure it out at the jail. If it’s not you, we’ll apologize and let you go on your way.’”

Police found James’ Nissan Xterra SUV nearby, where he had stashed $17,000 in cash as well as stolen ski jackets, ski pants and ledgers detailing an online eBay business. James faces between one and three years in prison after pleading guilty to felony theft between $2,000 and $5000, felony possession of burglary tools and misdemeanor obstructing police officers.

A gifted runner, James posed at the age of 26 as a 16-year-old high school student Jay Huntsman in Palo Alto, California in the 1980s, and as a college student on track scholarship at Princeton when he was in his 30s. The elaborate Princeton hoax, which fooled the Princeton university board and several newspapers wanting to report on James’ track successes, was captured in a New Yorker profile and a documentary.

Named one of America’s Top 10 Impostors by Time Magazine, James was also arrested for stealing $50,000 worth of jewels …

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Community

Off-Grid goes to Hollywood

Living off-grid isn’t just popular – it’s going mainstream.

New York Times bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz is achieving worldwide sales with his Orphan X series, which follows a spy living off the grid – and he’s currently writing the screen play for a film adaptation featuring Bradley Cooper, star of comedy franchise The Hangover.

Gregg, who has had 17 books on the New York Times bestseller list, is promoting his new one – The Nowhere Man, the second featuring the character Evan Smoak.

The first book in the series, Orphan X, introduces Smoak as a killer who was taken from an orphanage as a child and trained under secret government orders. He breaks free from the programme and vanishes off the grid to use his skills to help those unable to protect themselves.

The only way Smoak can be reached is through a technologically-protected phone number, each victim asked to pass the number along to one person in trouble. Lying low in a home base hidden behind layers of false internet connections and using sophisticated technology to insulate outside access, he creates his own rogue GSM site by using a yagi directional antenna, coaxial cable and omni stubble antenna mounted on a tripod – literally taking his devices off the grid by dodging all authentication between the base station and the cell tower. Smoak lives outside the boundaries of society with the freedom to travel at a moment’s notice.

In The Nowhere Man – Buy it on Amazon, released on February 1, Smoak goes from being the one who helps people, to needing help himself.

This is only the second time Gregg has stuck with a character for more than one book, and he said Smoak would be sticking around for a lot longer yet – he has signed with his publisher for at least five books about Smoak.

Gregg said when writing he always thought about the character’s point of view, and to get into the characters’ worlds he put himself in similar situations. This has seen him blow up cars and shoot weapons with navy seals.

“I spend more waking hours with my fictional characters then my wife and my kids,” he said.
“I’ve gone under cover in a mind-control cult. I will do whatever it is to be able to write about it effectively. If I don’t do it, I can’t write about it in a way that’s up close and personal.”

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The Road to Self-Reliance

American families have been going off-grid for more than forty years, but for most it’s a gradual process, involving a lot of learning by trial and error. In a recent article published in Reason, J.D Tuccille wrote about how his experience going “semi-off-grid” in 2008 led him to reconsider his attachment to the mains, and begin a journey towards self-reliance that is still ongoing today.

Dipping into off-grid waters

In 2008 a power failure lasted a week at J.D’s former home in remote Arizona. While he had his own well, it was controlled by a pump that required electricity, and the surface of the water was too low to dip some out by hand. Then there was the issue of modern plumbing without electricity, and the requirements of coffee pots to consider. However, outages were common – so J.D had come prepared. He and his wife Wendy Wendy had stored water, cut firewood, and fueled up the camping stove and lanterns. They remained hydrated, warm and fed through that and every other experience with the electric grid’s unreliability.
“All in all, it was a bit Little House on the Prairie for our tastes, though with a better wine selection – but ultimately more of an inconvenience than a disaster,” he wrote. “But tolerance for inconvenience can decline with the years.”

When they moved to a new house in the foothills, Wendy had a strict requirement – a climate-controlled environment in the house at all times. This required some research into the best off-grid power systems to use for the climate, so J.D had to get serious.
“This being Arizona, where everything bakes for much of the year under the fireball in the sky, my first thought was solar,” J.D writes. “But I quickly discovered that all of those panels adorning people’s roofs were nothing more than expensive shingles during a power outage. Most solar installations are designed to feed the grid, not keep you independent of it. I priced adding batteries to the mix to gain some autonomy, but they more than doubled the cost. And batteries couldn’t handle the power demands of an air conditioner anyway. So we settled, if that’s the right word, for a 22 kW standby generator, which can handle the well pump and keep the air conditioning running.”

He said they were “especially pleased” with the decision when the European Union completed a coordinated cyber-attack simulation and found it leading to a “very dark scenario,” including crashed power grids.
J.D also beefed up the water storage capabilities at the house with rain barrels hooked to the gutters, which are conveniently located near the garden where he now grows tomatoes, olive and fig trees.

“Wendy and I have stumbled down our path incrementally over the years out of a combination of necessity and curiosity,” he writes. “We also keep tweaking our set-up. In addition …

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