A Guy Who's Been Living Off the Grid for 20 Years Explains How to Live Sustainably

I asked the guy living in Sydney's greenest house whether I'm too poor to live off the grid.

Nat Kassel

Nat Kassel

Michael Mobbs the "off the grid guy." All images by author

From the street, Michael Mobbs's inner Sydney terrace house looks like any other. But 20 years ago, Michael and his wife transformed their Chippendale home into an experiment in sustainable living: solar power, rainwater tanks, and a septic system to process their waste.

Mobbs nicknamed himself the "off the grid guy." His backyard contains laying chooks, honeybees, and a small edible garden. He even helps to cultivate community gardens around the neighborhood. The couple still relies on gas for cooking, but they're spending less than $300 [$200 USD] a year on bills. Mobbs explains they're basically doing what farmers do, except in the middle of Sydney.

To me, Mobbs's life sounded like a cheap dream. Free power, water, and food with all the convenience and chaos of city life at my doorstep. The problem is there's a good chance I'll never be able to afford to buy a house in Sydney or Melbourne. Like most renters, I can't imagine convincing my landlord to install solar panels, a Tesla battery, or a rainwater tank.

And for me an eco-friendly house—just like that iPhone 6, a waterfront property, or having 50,000 Instagram followers—seems out of reach. So I decided to stop by Mobbs's place and ask him whether the carbon neutral existence is just a luxury reserved for rich baby boomers, or whether a poor 20-something like me could go off grid too.

Mobbs, a former lawyer, has published two books about living off the grid.

VICE: How much money and time did you put into this house?
Michael Mobbs: It cost me $48,000 [$35,000 USD] in 1996, but I made a lot mistakes because it was my first go. The water was $11,000 [$8,000 USD], the sewage was $11,000, and the solar was $26,000 [$19,000 USD]. But now that solar is dramatically reduced in cost. You're looking at about $25,000 [$18,000 USD] to go off grid. People can spend that on a kitchen, easily. It's quite a productive investment.

It took me three years of research because no one (that I was aware of) had done it in a city before. I went up a lot of dead ends, but once we started building, it only took three months. I wanted everything to be simple, so local tradespeople could install it and fix it.

Were you aiming to make a blueprint other people could copy?
I didn't want the house to only be for rich people. I wanted it to be so that anybody can do this. My energy and water bills were over $3,000 [$2,100 USD] [before renovating], and for the last 20 years, they've remained below $300 [$215 USD] a year. So if you were to spend $20,000 [$14,400 USD] to go off grid, you would save between $2,000 [$1,400 USD] to $4,000 [$3,000 USD] per year in energy and water bills. I pay no water or sewage bills, and no electricity bills.

Mobbs's homemade beehive

For a lot of people my age, it seems like we'll never be able to afford a house in the city—how can I live a greener existence?
You don't need to own a sustainable house to have more impact than this house does. You can be a renter and save more energy and water just by buying straight from farmers or at local food markets or food box services.

Our stomachs use twenty to forty times more power than our homes. The average Australian breakfast has to be grown, produced, and transported, and all up uses a thousand liters of water.

The backyard garden

So as someone with no real assets, ethical dieting is the best place to start?
Yeah, exactly. In a four-person household with a water efficient showerhead, you can save sixty thousand liters of water in a year. But if you just stop eating red meat one day a wee,k you can save sixty thousand liters in a month, easy. Food is just this huge sleeping monster.

Can you tell me about your career before you renovated this house?
I practiced law for nineteen years, specializing in environmental law, and I noticed that the more environmental laws there were, the dirtier the air got and the more energy we were consuming. I realized that law wasn't a solution, and I wanted to do something. So when I did this house and took care of my own pollution, it made me happier, and I'm glad I made the career change.

From the street, Mobbs's terrace looks a little greener than his neighbors, but you'd never guess what's inside.

The house changed your life?
When I started doing this, there was no one around. I had to learn to work with engineers, builders, and plumbers who hadn't been trained [to build sustainable housing]. I came across a huge amount of ignorance. That's why I wrote the book Sustainable House.

Then I wrote Sustainable Food because I'd discovered that the growing, production, and transport of food is the second biggest climate polluter in Australia after coal-fired power stations.

How much of your food do you get from the garden?
Probably one percent. Look at it, it's five meters wide, and it's mostly overshadowed, but I've got a lot happening there. That's why I started gardening in the street. The neighbors liked it, the media loved it, then the mayor came and planted a fruit tree, and now we have this policy where you can garden anywhere in the City of Sydney without government approval.

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