Sunday, November 17, 2013

Martin: Living off the grid

My friend Martin is living off the grid. He covers all his electricity needs from a 100 watt solar panel. The panel generates, on average, 330 watt-hours of electricity a day.


For comparison, electricity consumption of my refrigerator is about 1000 Wh a day (calculated from the nameplate annual consumption 370 kWh. This was the first time I actually read the label).


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Martin does not have a fridge. Neither air conditioning nor television.


His electricity consumption can be roughly summed up as: using a laptop computer, using two LED lamps, using washing machine once a week, and an electric fan in summer.


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When Martin wants to charge his laptop, he doesn't plug it into electric outlets on the wall like the rest of us. Martin's electricity comes from a lead-acid battery, which stores electricity generated by the solar panel in the garden. The panel is outside just behind the window, attached to a bamboo stick and facing south.


 




That panel has been Martin's only source of electricity since he discontinued contract with Tokyo Electric Power Company a year and a half ago. He gets no electricity bills.


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In the first days of his solar power life, Martin was playing around and trying things out. For example how long could he use a microwave? Answer: not long. The battery was empty in 5 minutes. All electricity used up, he had to spend that evening in darkness.


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Needless to say, there is no microwave in Martin's place anymore. Just in case, he bought this emergency headlight↓on the picture for potential evening blackouts. But as Martin gradually got smarter in adjusting his energy usage to the available watt hours (more on sunny days and when the battery is fully charged, less on cloudy days), there's only very occasional need for the headlight.


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So is Martin an ascetic hermit or a radical hippie? Neither.


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Martin is a scientist by profession. He came to Japan from Germany as a doctoral student in 2010 to do research on photovoltaics. He completed his degree last year and is now working as a researcher in one of Tsukuba's institutes.


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I was at Martin's PhD thesis defense and I felt like Alice in Wonderland, lost in a parallel universe whose inhabitants were casually talking about "droplet epitaxy" and "coupling of quantum dots" in the pursuit of "developing strain free material systems for IBSC research." That's the wonderland behind future photovoltaic technology.


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Martin's private world is much more comprehensible to the laymen, and the room in Tsukuba he's renting, with tatami floor and the bamboo shelf and pumpkins at the front door, is very cozy place that people like to visit.


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Martin came to Japan in 2010. In March the following year, Great East Japan Earthquake accompanied with tsunami stroke the country, followed by Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors' meltdowns. This event literally changed the course of history in Japan.


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Tsukuba is 180 km south from Fukushima Daiichi plant. It's quite possible that if Martin came to Japan in different time, he wouldn't be living the life he is living now. Fukushima disaster impacted us more deeply than we're willing to admit.


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This was the first time that some people started to ask the question that is so rare in advanced economies:


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What is "enough"?


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How much is enough? We have the concept of too little. People who live on less than 1 dollar a day have too little and need more. But in modern economy whose ultimate goal is infinite growth, there's no concept of "too much" or "enough." (What is "enough"? is originally Fritz Schumacher's question in Small is Beautiful.)




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When we - not as a nation but as individuals - try to figure out what is enough for us, how much stuff we need to be happy, we usually look around to see what others have, and from that we refer to what we need. If most people around us have a house and a car and a new model of iPhone, we conclude that we need a house and a car and a new model of iPhone. I call this "dependent thinking."

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The opposite of dependent thinking is independent thinking. Martin doesn't need others to decide for him whether he needs a fridge or a TV set.

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As soon as basic needs are fulfilled, happiness is a question of attitude rather than the amount of stuff. That's what I learned from Martin.

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A Japanese article about Martin in local newspaper is here.

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