There is no way to produce electricity that is completely moneyless in the truest sense of the word (requiring zero money at any stage of the process). Even the most relatively sustainable forms aren’t sustainable in absolute terms – the minerals and materials used are all of a finite nature, and our acquisition of many of them wreaks a lot of destruction on the Earth. And anyone who has tried to make a monocrystalline silicon wafer from scratch quickly realises that the global infrastructure, with its high economies of scale and fine division of labour, is needed for the job.
I used a solar panel to generate electricity for three years whilst claiming to live moneylessly, and whilst in practice and spirit I was, I still felt it tainted what I was trying to achieve. I chose to use a solar panel to power my laptop, and an incoming calls only (pay as you go) mobile phone to enable me to communicate what I was doing and why, so as to make my experience a resource for anyone who may have been interested. This was a compromise of course, and tinged with hypocrisy, but such are the decisions we sometimes have to make in this perfectly imperfect world we live in.
If you do want to live moneylessly and have electricity, then you have three main options: micro-hydro, solar and wind. Which one is most appropriate for you will depend on where you live. If you’re in the south of Portugal or Greece, solar is a great option. On the other hand, if you find yourself on a hill in the Highlands of Scotland, wind may be more appropriate, unless you have access to a body of fast-flowing water, in which case a combination of hydro and wind may be best. It is also difficult to advise which of these gives the best return per kW of energy they produce, as it is regularly changing depending on government policy and new technologies. If you’re really interested in learning what the best options are and how to install and use them, I’d recommend The Renewable Energy Handbook.(217)
Having to buy a wind turbine or solar panel to begin with may not be the necessity that it would first seem that it is(218) – projects such as Open Source Ecology(219) are now paving the way for such machines to be made DIY.
One of the basic reasons most of us need electricity today is for lighting. Our lives no longer beat to the rhythm of the seasons or the rise and fall of the sun, partially due to the incremental discovery of increasingly factory-dependent forms of human-induced lighting. In another horrible case of chicken and egg, the 24/7 culture this has created has convinced us that we now couldn’t live without such lighting.
Be clear about this – the most ecological and non-exploitative way of lighting your house is to not at all. This doesn’t merely result in you using zero resources. It also stops you from doing all sorts of other stuff, including working long into the evening, and can instead force you to relax or maybe even have some people-centred fun. I’ve little doubt that this will sound, at best, an impractical solution to the majority of people. But there would be many grossly unappreciated benefits of doing so. Turning off the lights could be utilised as a pathway to resynchronising with the rhythms of Nature, something we drastically need to do if we are to create a new, more expansive and holistic story of self. Other benefits are more obvious. Before the popular use of electrical lighting in Ireland, people would gather in each others moonlit living rooms – a time when these rooms were actually living – telling stories, reciting their own poems or the works of Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, W. B. Yeats, William Allingham, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and the like from memory, singing songs, dancing and generally creating their own entertainment. You couldn’t do any work because you couldn’t see very much. And without other powerful distractions, such as digital television, computer games and films-on-demand, people connected a lot more with each other and co-created their own fun.
However, if after all that you’ve decided that you’re still in favour of human-induced illumination, you don’t necessarily need electricity, or even petroleum based candles, to light your house. Beeswax is a great alternative, and you can produce it in your back garden in collaboration with a swarm of honeybees. Using the model of beehive I footnoted in chapter eight, you can acquire a fair amount of quality beeswax with which you can make candles that only require some simple everyday equipment in their construction.(220) Incidentally, beeswax can also be used for a whole host of other purposes including furniture polish, lipbalm, wood-filler and for sealing on jams, making it a very versatile substance to help produce.
If you think this is all a bit too much hassle and that an electrical switch is easier, then take inspiration from a twelve your old whom I met at a talk I gave for him and his classmates at the Malvern Spring Gardening Show one year. Apart from trying to convince his architect dad to build an Earthship at the time, he told me that he also made his own candles from beeswax and – wait for it – sold his excess candles so that he could raise money for charity. If we adults can’t even be bothered to take responsibility for our own lighting needs, then we really need to question whether or not the hot air that comes out of our mouths about climate change and resource depletion are just a bunch of empty words.
The next level down on the lighting POP model would be using energy you created using a wind turbine or solar panel, both of which can keep you bill-free but which also keep you one notch more reliant on an industrialised system that is destructive and that will not last forever. But if this is a step you can realistically do now, it is still very worthwhile.