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Ross Harding and why Off the Grid festival works

Australia still has not one net positive energy building. California has 250. Why this is so and how to change it underpins the Off the Grid Festival in Melbourne coming up on the Summer Solstice on Friday 22 December. According to Ross Harding it’s a festival that shows an alternative sustainable way to live doesn’t have to be “goody two shoes”. It can be fun and a bit rebellious.


According to Ross Harding, engineer, extreme-sustainability consultant and funky-gig organiser, if you’re going to have a solar-powered off-grid music and talk-fest it better be on the summer solstice on 22 December.

This year’s Off the Grid celebration of music and talk in Melbourne, which has been going in its various iterations in basements and lofts in London and other parts of the globe for several years now, falls on Friday.

Hmmm… maybe a bit too close to Christmas for some, and at the end of the week, at the end of a busy and exhausting year for most people in this industry (if not every other).

But according to Harding, there’s no messing with the date. It has to be the summer solstice. And he’s confident this year the event will be bigger than ever, drawing between 1000-2000 people wanting to hear from a range of environmentalists, architects, activists, entrepreneurs and foodies, or just go and dance and listen to music.

For Harding the festival is a chance to show that going off-grid and waste free, even for a big crowd in fun mode, can be an inspiring touch/see experience.

Harding shared a fly through animation of the site, which also provides an image of what the solar stage will look like, a structure designed and built by major supporter for the festival Brookfield Scientific Solutions. It will transform the forecourt of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Arts in Sturt Street, Southbank, he says.

According to the official language on the festival website Off the Grid is designed to “help power the entire city, one solar project at a time”.

“The power that is generated from the solar project will be sold back to the grid and the money then invested back into more parties.

“Once the city is 100 per cent renewable, we will give that infrastructure back to the people of Melbourne.”

There’s a lot of optimism embedded in any conversation with Harding and it comes through loud and clear over the phone during a recent conversation.

But this is a man who likes to mix up the positive faith with a bit of rebelliousness.

At the first of these events in London basements the branding was “fun, badass and rebellious”.

Sustainability can be a bit too “goody two shoes”, he says.

One collaborator was extreme fashion diva Vivienne Westwood who can hardly be mistaken for a paradigm of decorousness. And guaranteed to make sustainability leap out of its earnest and worthy straightjacket.

Another way is Harding’s determination to show that having fun and learning about an alternative sustainable future can come at little to no environmental cost and no additional financial burden than any other comparative activity.

For instance, the festival will produce no waste. Harding is determined about this. In the same way that patrons at other events might be searched for alcohol, at Off the Grid, they will be searched for waste.

Last year, there was disappointment that the festival produced two bags of waste. Questions were asked.

It turned out the waste comprised ice bags that people brought with them. This year recyclable plastic bags have been sourced.

For Harding the festival is not so much an event as a “cultural intervention”.

And a response to the very slow way change happens in this industry.

“It’s really a way of saying that things are moving too slowly in the industry as far as I’m concerned.”

It’s also a way to push the notion that self-sufficient projects that some people might think are far fetched, are possible and realisable.

off the grid festival

Ross Harding

Finding Infinity and self-sufficiency for the longer term

So while the festival shows what’s possible for a temporary event, his “day job” demonstrates the same determination can be applied to projects that are designed to last a lot longer, such as ski resorts in Europe and hotels in New Zealand.

He can see no reason not to aim for water neutral consumption, 100 per cent renewable energy and zero waste.

With colleagues in his company, Finding Infinity, Harding brings an unusual but useful mix of skills to the table. The engineering takes care of the technical details but he also has skills in finance, which is handy for implementation.

Key focus for the team is mainly energy and water, but he adds, “we dabble in food, transport and fair bit on embodied energy.”

The world is slowly getting sustainability but it’s way too slow a process for Harding.

“Our idea is how can we speed things up and break down the barriers.

“Our view is that it’s not the technical and financial barriers we need to overcome – we totally have the technical and financial viability to make self-sufficiency work.

“People are the barrier. It’s us.

“Time and time we’ve laid down technical and financial strategies and they’ve not been implemented.

“It comes down to ‘why?’. It’s the human factor.”

The reasoning is often, “The consumer doesn’t want it or the developer thinks the consumer doesn’t want it; thousand of people blaming other people for it.”

But to demonstrate what’s possible, to invite people to come together and experience an alternative they can touch/feel, can open up the mind like little else, Harding says.

“With events, we show people it’s better.”

We also need to progress differently, he says.

Right now no one is screaming out for a better product in apartments.

“Yes there are a few, but it’s happening very slowly.

“How it could be that in Australia we have not a single net positive energy office building?

“California 250 net positive energy buildings. They’re popping up all over the place.

“They’ve just become normal. It’s just what they do now.”

Former colleagues at engineering company WSP, where he previously worked, keep him up to date, and he says it’s happening with offices and apartments as well.

To hear this is a great antidote to the anti-climate news coming out of the US under the current president’s reign.

Harding says there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about how these engineers are doing net zero energy – just “efficient envelopes, plenty of solar panels and some nice passive design”.

Most of the projects are smaller, “not 40-storey towers”, but these too are coming, Harding says.

“To delve into what’s going on with the people issue is complex. There are so many trends going on. People want more of this and more of that.

I think consumers should be more educated all kinds of products, equally business needs to provide more sustainable products and proactively educate consumers on what they should want.” 

“In Australia, consumers don’t feel they have any power.”

We need to mandate net positive buildings

“We need a government to have better regulation.”

In Australia our regulations are soft core but we need hard core, he says. We should be mandating net positive buildings.

It’s also good to cater to different types of learning.

“Some people read, some people listen; there are different ways of learning,” Harding says.

“What’s interesting is that with sustainability there is so much information out there; so many reports that it’s not penetrating and only going to the people who want that information.

“Our view is that a huge component of education is missing – experience, when you actually experience sustainability. I think most people learn best when they do.”

It’s the time that their emotions open up, he says.

That’s what the festival is really about.

“We tell people we teleport them to another place.”

Free Tickets

Off the Grid has offered 10 free tickets to readers of The Fifth Estate, with priority given to TFE members.

Send a note to members@thefifthestate.com.au

Festival details

The festival will have 90 solar panels and a 160kWh battery bank. The conference goes from 9am to 5pm and the music festival goes from 1pm to 11pm.

“We allow people to go inside, connect with something like music and elements they can physically touch and feel,” Harding says.

Batteries will power the turntable, there will be “a cool DJ, an interesting crowd of people who are creative and forward thinking”

“We don’t search for booze, we search them for waste. If they smuggle waste in that’s the only waste they we will produce.

“But we don’t make it hard, we make it easy for people.”

There will be cups that can be brought back and have a deposit to encourage this. And if some food products are not recyclable they will be compostable.

And everything will be affordable… not at a cost premium.

Speakers include:

Alison Rowe [Moreland Energy Foundation]

Amy Roberts [Vege Threads]

Clare Cousins [President Elect, Australian Institute of Architects]

Courtney Holm [A.BCH]

Ella Saurus [PSYKLZ ClubSport]

Erin Rhodes [The Rogue Ginger]

James Murray-Parkes [Brookfield]

Joost Bakker [Brothl, SILO]

Kate Dundas [3000acres]

Kate Nicolazzo [Positive Charge]

Kristy Richards [The Lab Strategy]

Linda Kennedy [Future Black]

Michael Alvisse [Schamburg + Alvisse]

Michael Markham [tUG Workshop]

Michelle Isles [City of Melbourne]

Monique Conheady [Moreland Energy Foundation]

Rob Adams [City of Melbourne]

Rob Murray-Leach [Energy Efficiency Council]

Roj Amedi

Taryn Lane [Hepburn Wind]

Timothy Hill [Partners Hill]

 

Music + Arts: 1PM-11PM

JAY DANIEL (USA)

CHEE SHIMIZU (JP)

BEN FESTER

DIANAS

JAALA VS. MAN

KRAKATAU

KAIIT

TONI YOTZI

TWO STEPS ON THE WATER

Performance by SOMA

See the Off the Grid site for more details.

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