Sharing The Lessons Of Going It Alone by Alastair Leithead

Going ‘off the grid’ means different things to different people. One of them is some iteration of me living barefoot on the land, not washing my long hair and disappearing down disinformation rabbit holes: the 1960s counterculture of “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

The resilience and persistence of Portuguese brambles keep my shoes firmly attached to my feet, and while I could do with a trim, the flowing locks ship sailed long ago. My journalistic career has inoculated me against the explosion of conspiracy theories that social media and the oncoming wave of AI generated lies will no doubt bring, and I’m happier with a wobble from wine that anything psychedelic.

Our version of off the grid is a bit more straightforward: living as comfortably as possible without being physically connected to any of the services most people take for granted. We’re responsible for sourcing the basics like water and power, heating, treating the waste, staying online and trimming the grass to protect us from fire.

A robust car helps, and a second puncture in a week is a reminder of how reliant we are on reliable transportation. Helped by passing friends – and also by a passing stranger – it was also a great reminder of the important role community plays in remote rural places. Every day continues to be a school day and our big take-away is keeping the balance between what you’ve got and what you need to do with it.

There are many things which keep us awake at night, but one of the most common is water.
We have enough for us – for now – but from next year when our tourist lodge opens we will need enough for up to 20 guests at a time.

Conservative use is 200 litres per person per day, but some people can be very liberal when taking a shower, so we’ll need four to five thousand litres every day in the height of summer. Efficient toilets will help, as will water-saving shower heads which either increase pressure to provide more power, or add air to give the appearance of volume.

And then there’s the challenge of drinking water, as our borehole water is slightly salty. We began buying mineral water, but with no municipal dustbin to hide behind we put every single plastic bottle into the recycling bins ourselves and realised just how much we throw away. So we progressed from filling up at a spring to the current status-quo of collecting, drinking and carbonating rain water which we collect in a tank. While we’re still juggling the best way to guarantee a larger supply of good water, collecting rain is certainly going to be an important part of the plan.

The first stress of going off-grid was an old solar-powered electrical system. When we first moved in it took a little while to balance what we wanted to power with what we had to power it with… and the answer was not a great deal. Batteries barely took us through the night, and the system would trip if we ran a washing machine while making toast.

Courtesy of a large and expensive new three-phase power system, we currently have more electricity than we know what to do with, but that will soon change when the lodge opens.
We currently heat our water with solar thermal panels where liquid is heated directly by the sun, but we are betting on photo-voltaic panels for the expansion on the basis that if the sun isn’t shining we won’t have power or hot water!

We’re installing heat pumps which are three or four times more efficient than a normal electric element and can provide underfloor heating in the winter and underfloor cooling in the summer. We’re relying on photovoltaic power in the knowledge the coldest times here also have the clearest skies and the new panels work surprisingly well in cloud. The only backup will be a generator that we hope not to need.

We’re learning to keep it simple – the more systems there are, the more there is to go wrong.

The one thing we managed to get right is connectivity – a line-of-sight radio link to a fibre optic cable that allows us to stream high-definition telly. On the occasional time it fails us we ponder Starlink – a now affordable and accessible satellite internet system.

Every expert has their way of doing things – best on experience or what it is they’re trying to sell – but most assume an endless supply of energy which we don’t have. If only there was some kind of off-grid consultant to bring it all together. If we get through our projects unscathed maybe a new career path lies ahead…

Alastair Leithead is a former BBC Foreign Correspondent and freelance journalist now living in a remote rural part of Alentejo. He writes a blog called “Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal” and is writing about wine “The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure.”

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