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Dylan Cawthorne: From Alaska to Odense, from living totally off-grid to very much on-grid to finding a middle way

By: Denise Abrahamsen

Asking Dylan Cawthorne if he could present himself in a few words, he said:

“I’m Dylan Cawthorne, and I’m an associate professor here at SDU, so I’m a drone-engineer, and a human being first of all.”

Mentioning he is a human being might be little odd, but after a while of chatting back and forth, it makes total sense why Dylan Cawthorne would say such a thing. 

Dylan Cawthorne works from a very holistic point of view. Growing up in Alaska he and his family lived totally off-grid, and from that to once live on-grid to now living somewhere in between, he’s experienced both the ups and downs from both.

“My approach to life is that I like to make experiments,” Dylan Cawthorne explains and continues by saying that he might have been inspired by his parents.

“I actually grew up off-grid”, he says, explaining that living off-grid means that you do not have normal infrastructure; you do not have electricity or running water from the government or other corporations, and sometimes it also means not having roads, schools, etc.

Dylan Cawthorne had a few reasons to leave Alaska, but maybe the most important one is that he didn’t like the cold. Then he moved to California.

Now, he’s living in Denmark, so it’s debatable how much he really escaped the cold. Nonetheless, it might be colder in Alaska than it is in Denmark.

From A to B – and finding C

“I left Alaska with one of the reasons being I didn’t like living in the cold with no running water,” Dylan Cawthorne says, emphasizing that “it is a hard way to live.”

From living off-grid in Alaska, he tried to make a lot of money in California.

“I kind of went on another track, wanting a lot of comfort and all these kinds of things that are convenient,” he mentions before saying “some of the elements from my early life have started coming a bit back into my life.”

“I tried the other way, and I was quite disappointed by it,” he says and continues explaining that “it’s very easy to forget what you’re giving away when you depend on other things and other people – and I like to be independent.”

Trying to find a middle way, Dylan Cawthorne has installed a solar panel in his apartment. 

Living in a building that faces south, Dylan Cawthorne saw an opportunity to make most of the sun and using it to make his own electricity.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t install solar panel on the roof to make sure the whole building could benefit from the power.

When he first tried to have solar panels installed on the roof he was told it was too expensive and that people didn’t care about the environmental benefits.

“That doesn’t align with my values,” Dylan Cawthorne says.

People, living in apartments, often don’t have many rights when it comes to choosing sustainable energy. This is partly because they are depending on centralized technologies and powerplans from companies. 

“I am big supporter of decentralized technologies. So instead of having a nuclear poweplan (or powerplans from e.g. EnergiFyn), where the energy is centralized, I think it’s much better to have more democratic, distributed systems, which could happen if everyone had small solar panels on their roof,” Dylan Cawthorn explains. 

Current affairs, geo-politics, and dependency

Talking about sustainable energy, Dylan Cawthorne mentions how geo-political solutions and dependency plays an important role. “If you’re beholding to another country, that you don’t trust or don’t want to do business with, but you need the energy, then that’s tricky,” Dylan Cawthorne points out, before talking about how those are some of the problems we witness now regarding the war in Ukraine, but also in the East with oil in the past. “We live in a very connected world, which is good, from a social standpoint,” he says. But according to Dylan Cawthorne it also makes all of the inter-connections more fragile. “It’s not about isolationism, where we want to not work with the rest of the world, but it is about being smart,” he explains, which aligns with his argument about decentralized technologies.

Benefits from owning your own solar panels – but also what to be aware of

Being a supporter of decentralized technologies, Dylan Cawthorne himself installed solar panels in his windows.

A lot of consideration went into the decision-making before installing them. Living in an old building in Odense, Dylan Cawthorne didn’t want to do any damage, and he also wanted to preserve the style and look of the building. The solar panels are therefor also easily removable.

“I did a small experiment for some months, installing a small solar, and no one didn’t really seem to care about it. So, I installed a bigger system with four solar panels, so I have 400 watts of power,” Dylan Cawthorn explains.

In the summertime, he makes a few kWh of power, which means around half of his energy power, during the summer, is made from his own solar panels.

Even though half of Dylan Cawthorne’s energy power is made from his own solar panels, he is also aware of the carbon footprint of making the solar panels.

“It’s actually a fairly complicated calculation too. Because you must pay back the CO2 that was created while making the solar panels,” he explains. 

Most of Dylan Cawthorne’s solar power system is built from secondhand components which help a lot. But he also explains that solar panels from China take more than double the time to pay back than solar panels from Germany, since China uses a lot less green energy. 

“On large scale solar panel-farms it usually takes a couple of years to pay back, to go to zero, and solar panels last between 10-20 years, so the first couple of years is all about paying back,” he explains saying that the best thing people can do is to reduce their consumption. 

Dylan Cawthornes solarpanels seen from outside his building

Being aware of own habits and psychological benefits

Asking Dylan Cawthorne if he had any advice to students or whoever wanting to go off-grid – or just lower their emissions but might not be able to (or get permission to!) install a solar panel, he said:

“Honestly, the best thing people could do is reducing their consumption,” Dylan Cawthorn points out, and further explains how he first thought of powering his whole life on solar, at least in the summer, but quickly realized that would mean he needed tons of solar panels.

Instead, he looked at his consumption and made a few changes here and there trying to reduce it.

“I don’t mind making some small changes in my lifestyle. I know that there are some people who would never accept that. I am happy to modify my behavior, to a certain extent, and a lot of it comes down to your own mindset and actions,” Dylan Cawthorne clarifies. 

One of the first things Dylan Cawthorne did was getting a power meter and plugged it into his different appliances, downloading the EnergiFyn-app and looked at his consumption.

By then he could tell when his consumption was high or low and also why, and modify his ways from there or even upgrade to more sustainable and efficient solutions. E.g., he got a more efficient refrigerator, an induction-cooker and a small oven.

Being more aware of his consumption patterns made Dylan Cawthorne realize something:

“When you make your own electricity – it’s kind of psychological – and it’s kind of strange because you’re not really doing anything. But when you come home, you’re excited because you made energy,” he says continuing to explain how his system has batteries, so it’s not tied to the grid at all. 

This means that everything that comes into the system is from the solar panels, and he is the only one who can use it.

“And that had an interesting psychological effect, because when I got home from work I thought ‘Oh cool, it’s been a sunny day today, so now I’m able to watch television for a couple of hours off-grid’ from the energy that I made.”

An interesting aspect from Dylan Cawthorne’s experiment, he says, is that he is become in tune of his surroundings and the seasons.

“Have you asked me a couple of years ago, before I started this experiment, which way my apartment was facing or how the sun changes throughout the seasons, I wouldn’t have known.”

“Another, riskier thing you can do, is be willfully disobedient to rules you think are stupid”, he says with a little laugh, before he explains the term “activist engineer”: “An activist engineer is someone who uses their engineering skill to make political points or supports any political activities.” But being such an engineer, and pushing back against rules need to be done in a responsible manner, Dylan Cawthorne clarifies.

Dylan Cawthorne also points out that making changes is always more complicated than it seems, and there are no easy fixes.

Sustainability is not black or white

As mentioned in the beginning, Dylan Cawthorne introduced himself as a human being with a very holistic point of view when it comes to his research, but also when it comes to sustainability in general.

“What I think is one of the pitfalls of sustainability is that if you frame something in a narrow way you can make it look good, so I try to do a kind of holistic assessment, which means that there’ll be both good and bad things from any kind of technology,” Dylan Cawthorne explains.

When making the drones, Dylan Cawthorne tries to do it in a sustainable way, making sure the carbon footprint is not too high. But talking about sustainability is more than just the climate.

Some of Dylan Cawthorne’s work and research is for example linked to healthcare. 

The Danish HealthCare drone is designed to transport blood samples from smaller hospitals to larger hospitals that have more advanced testing equipment. In this example sustainability is also about health care, which correlates with SDG 3, Good health and well-being.

“You can’t just think about the negatives about carbon footprints, because there’s great benefits of people being able to be healthy, and that can’t be captured in CO2,” Dylan Cawthorne argues.

Sustainability is therefor not just black or white.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that ‘oh people should just stop flying’ and all of these things – even though flying has a big impact – but people need to be more responsible, and I also think that it should be less expensive to take the train. But we also need to remember that there is great benefits that comes from travelling,” Dylan Cawthorne argues, ending with the sentence: “It’s complicated.”

And yes, sustainability is complicated, which – I think – is why Dylan Cawthorne described himself as a human being. He might not have all the answers, but he has great ideas and like to experiment, which is one way to a more sustainable future. 

Meet Dylan Cawthorne

From a young age, Dylan Cawthorne was fascinated with airplanes and flight, and as a child he built tons of remote-control airplanes of his own design. Today, he is an Associate Professor at the Drone Center at SDU. His research is about ethics and how to make the world better using drones. If you want to know more about Dylan Cawthorne’s work, research and projects, see link below.

Meet Dylan Cawthorne

Last Updated 27.01.2023