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Cape Breton couple perfects off-grid living

- Belle De Mont
- Belle De Mont

PIPERS GLEN, INVERNESS COUNTY –- Off-grid living for Jim Mustard and Margaret Thompson started with kerosene lamps and car batteries in the early 1980s. They didn’t have much choice.

Moving to Cape Breton from Alberta, where the Toronto boy met the girl from Nanton at agriculture college, the couple had purchased a plot of land in Pipers Glen where there were no power lines. If they wanted to live there, they had to rely on other energy sources.

“There was no solar energy at the time, no internet to (order it)…Where would we find it? We had to (figure out how to get it),” said Mustard who is an Inverness County municipal councillor and CEO of Breton Cannapharms. “We had to run lights, a fridge, stereos. I really like music so there had to be that.”

Over the three decades they’ve lived there and it’s been trial and error, figuring out what energy sources work best and what ones can’t win the battle with Mother Nature.

They tried to harvest energy from the brook but the water (hydro) system was overpowered by it. Turbine energy doesn’t work because Pipers Glen is in a valley and there isn’t much wind. Solar panels are the most efficient way for the family to get enough energy to fuel their house; one full of all modern amenities like televisions, computers, freezers and stereos.

“When we first got here we had to source all the 12-volt batteries that came out of boats and such,” Mustard said. “Now we’re swimming in power except during the dark months, November, December and January, where there is less light. During that time, we supplement with generators.”

As the internet grew, it became easier for the couple to research alternative energy sources, keep up to date with advances in technology and purchase things like solar panels. Mustard believes it’s only a matter of time before they find a solution to getting through the dark months.

“It’s good living off the grid because we have a sense of how much energy it takes to run things. That gives us a deeper sense of what you’re doing on a global level because of a better understanding of energy usage.”

Water for the home comes from a nearby spring, pulled into the house with a gravity flow system (the spring located at a 150-feet away from the home, at a higher elevation). And the family have a half-acre garden where they grow vegetables they store in their root cellar over winter, something they learned from their neighbours – the “old-timers” who shared their expertise in living remotely, off the grid.

“I went over and asked them, “What did they do with their vegetable, to get through the winter?” They’d say, “Put it in the ground,” like I was stupid,” Mustard said, laughing at the memory. “The generosity of the local people was just amazing.”

Mustard said their nine children (three biological, six long-term fosters) grew up surrounded by beautiful scenery and for the most part living off-grid was good.

“There was a stage in the 1990s, I’m sure some of our birth children were like, “Can’t we be like everyone else?” said Mustard who also has horses on their property.

When Nova Scotia Power was going from being a crown corporation to a capital one, Mustard and Thompson had the chance to get power lines run-up to their property. But Mustard said it didn’t interest him and he’s happy they’ve successfully built their rustic homestead, in a place he feels he’s always belonged.

“The nature of Cape Breton is very humbling and it’s something that’s made me who I am,” he said. “I say I am from Cape Breton, I just didn’t choose where I was born.”


Jim and Margeret aren't the only ones off Nova Scotia Power's grid on Cape Breton. Meet 94-year-old Jessie Tompkins!

94 year-old Jessie Tompkins does have a satellite dish that she could power at need, but says “There’s nothing worth watching on the thing.” - Aaron Beswick
94-year-old Jessie Tompkins does have a satellite dish that she could power at need, but says “There’s nothing worth watching on the thing.” - Aaron Beswick

Off the grid, full of spark: Spending 65 years without power or regrets in Inverness County

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