Going off grid is easy!


I’ve been immersed in reams of reports and data regarding the electrical grid for months (read the results!), and let me tell you this: The grid is big, it’s important, it creeps into every aspect of our modern lives, and it’s fragile. If your science fiction story is in need of a modern-Frankenstein-like human-made monster that turns on us, you could do worse than the grid. It contains millions of miles of wires, and though we operate it from “control rooms,” we actually have very little control over it at all. It is considered the finest engineering achievement of the 20th century, yet it is prone to breaking down, due to: severe weather (both heat and cold, along with tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires); electromagnetic pulses detonated by evil terrorists; cyber-attacks; solar flares; birds burrowing into transformers; petty vandalism; and human error.

Not only that, but the grid evolved around a system that is mostly based on sending power from huge, centralized fossil-fueled power plants -- along with a few big dams -- across hundreds of miles of landscape to burgeoning cities. And in order to move away from this model, we’re told that we’d actually have to grow the grid -- that is, add thousands upon thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines in order to integrate a bunch of renewables into our energy mix.

The full moon rises behind wind turbines and transmission towers in Arizona.

Given all of that, it makes sense that folks, from earth-loving hippies to patriot “preppers” to entire towns, would want to go off-grid.

If only it were that easy.

Many years ago, when I was young, my wife and I tried to buy a house in my hometown of Durango, where we had jobs. We couldn’t afford it, even back then. So we expanded our search further and further outwards. Finally, convinced we’d end up in a double-wide, at best, we found an affordable and charming little hand-built adobe/strawbale hodgepodge of a house some 40 miles southeast of town on the edge of New Mexico.

The house was off the grid, and got all its electricity from a scrappy collection of solar panels that were either salvaged from demolished homes or “recycled” from nearby oil and gas wells. Surely it wouldn’t be enough, we thought, but since power lines came to the edge of the property, we knew it wouldn’t cost that much to get “real” power when the need arose.

The need never arose. The solar panels -- in concert with a bank of four golf-cart batteries from Sam’s Club -- kept the lights on the entire two years that we lived there. We only had to crank up the diesel generator once, for a few hours, on or near a cloudy, snowy winter solstice. The solar panels and their battery sidekicks even did the trick during Christmas, when we had a house full of guests who were wedded to their hair dryers, food processors and coffee-bean grinders. Maintenance was minimal: We had to brush the snow off the panels, and top off the water in the batteries once a month or so.

Before you rush off to procure a solar panel from the nearest oil and gas well and free yourself from the grid, though, heed this: There is a catch.

You see, our off-grid house was not your average suburban home. It wasn’t even your average super energy-efficient home. It was downright funky and, more importantly, it was constructed and equipped with off-the-grid-ness in mind. The guy who built it had spent a lot of time on boats, so the house was wired like one. It had super-efficient direct current halogen and fluorescent lighting -- the bedroom light was actually a Volkswagen van headlamp -- which allowed them to run directly off the solar panels or batteries. Probably our biggest electricity need was pumping water for irrigation and drinking, which was done with small DC boat pumps. The house was equipped with an inverter, which transforms DC into the alternating current on which most appliances run. But we didn’t really have any appliances: No dishwasher, no clothes washer, no espresso maker and certainly no air conditioner. Our refrigerator ran on propane.

So the lesson is that you most certainly can run a home off of a modest array of photovoltaic panels, but most likely not your home, or my current one for that matter. To do so would require covering the entire roof and then some with solar panels. More importantly, it would probably mean turning one side of your two-car garage into a battery bank that must be well-ventilated and is prone to exploding. Even then you’d be well-advised to shift your energy use habits to preserve battery life: Washing clothes or charging all those electronics or even steaming the milk for your latte only during the early afternoon, when solar gain is at its highest. And the air conditioner? Better leave it off altogether. Refrigeration of any sort is a major power suck.

Our lives and our society have become so dependent on the grid that separating ourselves from it requires us to radically alter our lifestyle and society. That’s especially true in the United States, where we use about twice the electricity per capita as Germany and ten times what Cubans use (are we still Americans if we unplug?). Even if we do manage to unplug from the grid, we still depend on it. Cell phones and the Internet are reliant on the power grid and the communications grid. We got our drinking water for our adobe abode by collecting rainwater off the roof, but irrigation water came from a ditch, or the water grid (surely pushed along by electricity-driven pumps, at some point along the line). Though we could cook and heat the house and water with wood stoves, we also had a propane stove, heater, water-heater and refrigerator; no grid, no propane.

Per capita electric power consumption for selected countries. Source: World Bank.

That’s why I find it somewhat humorous when folks slap a few solar panels on the roof and declare themselves “off-grid” or “un-plugged” because their electric meter needle holds still or even goes backward for an hour or two on sunny days. There’s a new movement now to take entire neighborhoods, institutions and even communities off-grid by setting up their own micro-grids powered by a variety of distributed generation. It’s a great idea, and will enable these places to keep the lights on for a while as the rest of us sit in the dark, but it doesn’t change a persistent truth: We’re all plugged in, all the time.

Photo by the author. Graph data from the World Bank.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He is connected through the grid in a number of ways, including Twitter, where his handle is @jonnypeace.

Fred Swanson
Fred Swanson Subscriber
May 24, 2013 07:44 AM
Jonathan, you're right about modern homes and their energy usage, but with a few reasonable adjustments in our own consumption patterns, my family of three is able to offset 85-95% of our annual electricity use from only eight 220-watt, grid-tied solar panels. The key is an efficient refrigerator, no big-screen TV, and (most critical) no air conditioning. That's not feasible in many locations in the West, but one can make a contribution for a not terribly huge outlay. The problem of peak demand vs. solar gain is a serious one, but utilities in desert communities might consider incentivizing more west-facing solar panels, which would peak in evening hours. And superinsulating all new homes--it makes a difference! Looking forward to your article.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
May 24, 2013 08:44 AM
Fred, Thanks for the great comment! I do believe that if we constructed our homes with energy efficiency in mind, it would change everything. After all, people lived in the desert Southwest for hundreds of years without air-conditioning -- it's amazing how cool a thick-walled, low-lying adobe can stay during the hottest days. And it's so much less expensive to build energy efficient features into a new house, along with solar panels, than it is to retrofit an existing one. Unfortunately energy efficiency was clearly way down on the list when those thousands of homes were built during the last housing boom. Maybe the next boom will be different. We can only hope.
Dan Schroeder
Dan Schroeder Subscriber
May 24, 2013 03:57 PM
It's important to distinguish between being off-grid and being energy self-sufficient (or carbon-neutral). If you live 40 miles from your work place, or if you travel frequently for any reason, you may be using more energy (and/or more carbon) on transportation than in the home. Most off-grid homes, as you point out, still use quite a bit of fuel for heating and cooking and even refrigeration. It actually wouldn't be difficult for most households to lower their electricity use to the point where they could offset 100% of it, averaged over a year, with a garage-roof-sized PV system. But if the goal is reducing energy use, the PV system isn't the main point; while if the goal is getting off the grid, the PV system needs to be more elaborate.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
May 25, 2013 09:51 AM
Dan, Excellent points. And it does bring up the sticky issue of transportation, which is huge. Since off-grid homes tend to be in rural areas, their owners probably drive more (I used to drive 40 miles to and from work each day, and which relies on that other grid: the highways/streets). Of course, if you can go off-grid and have enough power to charge and electric car, then it gets interesting, especially if you can use that car's battery as backup for your home (similarly, a lot of electric cars on the road has interesting implications for the big grid).