Fourteen years ago, William Kemp went off grid, turning his home into a model of energy efficiency without losing any of the creature comforts. His books explain how you, too, can shrink your power-hungry footprint
By Peter Christie
Suspended by great latticed metal towers, transmission wires stretch across William Kemp’s view of the wilderness in front of his home. The wires cross the forests and fields of the bucolic landscape like a scar, delivering electricity for legions of power-hungry Ontarians.
Kemp, however, is not among them. For almost 14 years, he and his wife, Lorraine, have lived in Lanark County cut off from the traditional power grid, generating their own electricity from renewable sources. If the Kemps derive any satisfaction in a vista interrupted by power lines, it is as a reminder that the wires pass them by.
“It is impossible to describe this to somebody who doesn’t live it,” says Kemp. “Anybody who comes here for the first time, particularly from the city, is horrified at the thought of not being connected to the umbilical cord of hydro.
“But once you do it, there’s this sense of pride, but also a sense of wonder that the sun that’s shining and the wind that’s blowing are turning the lights on here. It becomes almost an addictive sort of game to play. I think that’s what pushes me to want to take it to the next level.”
The next level is precisely what distinguishes Kemp. The 46- year-old consultant and author not only lives off-grid, he has made the quest for energy self-sufficiency his life and his work. His three books – The Renewable Energy Handbook, $mart Power and Biodeisel: Basics and Beyond – have become bestsellers in Canada. Published by Aztext Press, each one recounts (simply, but with engineering detail) the lessons that Kemp has learned in his search for clean energy.
Not your stereotypical bearded back-to-the-lander in a checked shirt, Kemp more closely fits the image of a soft-spoken, carefully groomed businessman. His home, too, is no generator-powered shack in the woods. The 306-square-metre (3,300 square foot) replica farmhouse, built mainly by Kemp and his wife, is elegant and almost sumptuously equipped.
Inside, Kemp froths milk with a cappuccino machine. His bright country kitchen is complete with a microwave and an electric bread maker. His living room features a 52-inch, high-definition television and stereo. Downstairs, a satellite-linked office has computers and electronics equipment. A well-outfitted gym is in the next room.
And the power? Standing unobtrusively near the horse shed, an array of photovoltaic panels quietly turns (thanks to a computerized tracker) to follow the sun. Above it, a small wind turbine whispers as it chops at the breeze. In a nearby outbuilding – as a backup for windless, cloudy days – a diesel generator is fuelled by biodeisel that Kemp makes using waste cooking oil from a pub in a nearby town.
“I wanted to show that energy sustainability doesn’t mean freezing in the dark,” says Kemp. “As you can see, it doesn’t have to mean doing without.”
The quest began when Kemp, who was living in the nearby village of Fallbrook, agreed with his wife to build a country home at the back of the farm belonging to her family. The lot was on a beautiful hilltop down a long, dirt lane. The downside was that installing a hydro line and poles to access useable electricity would have cost at least $13,000 (nearby transmission lines notwithstanding). Kemp knew there had to be a better way. He got to work designing their energy self-sufficient home.
“When we first moved in, a lot of people thought we were crazy,” says Kemp. “But then the ice storm happened and that sort of changed things.” The ice storm of January 1998 downed power lines and transmission towers across Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. Within days, the Kemp household became shelter to all manner of relatives and friends, including several residents from a senior’s home that was forced to shut down. The episode helped crystallize for Kemp the potential impact of his own example to change attitudes and the way other people use energy.
The solar panels provide 80 percent of Kemp’s electricity needs. The turbine kicks in for 15 percent, and the generator provides the remaining 5 percent. A battery bank in a wine-cellar-like room in the basement collects and stores the energy. Hot water (and Kemp’s hot tub) is substantially supplied by a vacuum-tube solar heating system on the roof. Two diesel cars – one a high-mileage Smart car – run, in part, on the homemade biodeisel.
More than this, however, the Kemp household is a model of energy efficiency. The blown-in cellulose insulation (made from recycled paper) effectively traps the heat, and the many amenities have all been carefully chosen for their sparing use of energy. “Everybody gets very excited about the photovoltaic panels and the wind turbines, because they’ve got the most visibility and the most sex appeal. But energy efficiency wins hands down for the least capital cost and the greatest return on investment.”
Trained in electronic technology at Algonquin College, Kemp is an engineer enthusiast and businessman first. He was the impetus behind two successful electronics companies. One, Powerbase Automation Systems of Carleton Place, makes control systems for hydroelectric generators for projects as far afield as China.
Although Kemp is a committed environmentalist, he is less interested in appealing to people through their ecological conscience than through their wallets. His message – that being green pays – is significantly bolstered by his own carefully documented, real-life example.
“You’re always standing on firmer ground when you’ve tried to grapple with these challenges yourself,” says David Chernushenko. The Ottawa environmentalist and senior deputy to the leader of the federal Green Party has grown to admire Kemp in the four years since he first became familiar with Kemp’s work. “Bill Kemp has shown how you can dramatically reduce your energy consumption in quite a comfortable home. That sends the message to people that reducing energy demand is not about living in a cave.”
These days, Kemp is designing what he calls “a zero-carbon car” (and writing his next book about it). Exhaust from typical automobile engines is a major source of climate-affecting carbon gas in the atmosphere. Kemp’s car, on the other hand, will run mainly on batteries charged by renewable power sources.
“It’s fine to wax poetic about how wonderful the rural lifestyle is, but you have to remember that there are trade-offs,” Kemp observes. “Let’s face it, from here, you’ve got to drive everywhere.
“A lot of people think that living off-grid is the most sustainable lifestyle, but that’s not true. The lawyer in the Armani suit who lives in a downtown condo and walks to work is going to have a far more sustainable lifestyle than any back-to-the-land farmer who lives off-grid and drives his organic vegetables to market every day.” Indeed, a zero-carbon lifestyle is one of the next-level goals Kemp has set for himself.
“Change in the way we use energy and affect the environment has to come from the bottom up, as well as the top down,” says Kemp, who recently helped convince the Ontario Power Authority to increase the amount it will pay independent producers of renewable electricity. “Policies and everything else are important, but there’s so much people can do to improve their own energy efficiency and make a difference.”
Peter Christie, a writer and editor, lives in Kingston. His latest science book for kids, Naturally Wild Musicians: The Wondrous World of Animal Song, will be published this fall by Annick Press.