I live in Northern California where PG&E has recently been shutting off power to large areas and populations because of the fire risk PG&E’s infrastructure poses, particularly when the weather is dry and windy. This has been causing all sorts of trouble for people. What if you are on medical equipment that must not be shut down? What if everything in the fridge/freezer in your restaurant spoils? Does your business need electricity to function?! There are so many what-ifs.
There is uncertainty and even fear around the concept of going off grid, yet with our ageing, inadequate and poorly maintained grid, now is a perfect time to make yourself immune from grid troubles like outages and rising rates. Many people fear that going off-grid is prohibitively expensive, but with planning the costs can be quite manageable.
Energy efficiency is the key! The less energy you need, the less equipment you’ll have to buy and the lower your initial costs. With a thoughtful approach, cutting 50% of your usage is not too difficult, while more aggressive measures can get you an 80% reduction.
The best way to begin is to measure your electrical loads and use that to guide you in cutting down the demand. There is a range of equipment for doing this, but a simple Kill-A-Watt meter is an inexpensive way to measure plug loads. The other load you want to know about is your base load. With everything turned off, what power use do you have? I keep mine under 15 watts, while it’s not uncommon to find homes with a steady 300-watt draw. This comes from things like cable boxes and TVs with a remote control (power strips can help here). With 50% or 80% savings, filling in the remaining need with homemade power doesn’t have to be particularly hard or expensive. Even if you live in a city, as long as you have some solar access, unhooking from the grid need be no more difficult than it is in a rural setting.
There was actually a time before the power grid! Maybe a look back in time could help us to better understand what has already been done to better inform our becoming more independent now. Things like water wheels and gas generators existed for creating your own energy. Bypassing the need for energy came from items like windmills for pumping water and appropriate building design--think shady porches in warm climates. People going off grid in rural settings could actually help utilities manage their systems better if the many power lines in forested areas could gradually be eliminated rather than going through the expense of undergrounding them for safety. Locally made and distributed power, often referred to as a microgrid, is another way of getting power for you and your neighbors. Going off the big grid could even benefit those who remain on it, as it helps reduce peak loads, which the grumpy old grid has trouble with.
One interesting idea for being immune from power outages is to drive an electric car than not only charges from your (or other) system, but can also put power back into your electrical system. The energy stored in a Tesla could easily power my efficient home for nearly a month!
Cost does not have to be a barrier to having a substantially more efficient home. Retrofitting existing homes to use far less energy is not simple, but has been done many times and in very different circumstances, and using different approaches. True efficiency is not pie-in-the-sky! When I built my own off-grid home, which I designed around the necessity of being very efficient, the going cost per square foot for new construction was about $250. My house came in at $100, yet uses only about one tenth the energy of what conventional housing does--without any discomfort or freezing in the dark. This demonstrates that efficiency does not have to cost more, but in fact can be much less. Amory Lovins once described it as “Tunneling through the cost barrier.” Of course, new construction is far simpler to make efficient, but we are unlikely to tear down all those existing homes in the name of efficiency.
Managing my home’s power system takes on average, just a few minutes per week. With more modern batteries, even that number would go down. If I looked at what I would have to pay out in energy bills and compare it to the time I spend on managing the system, it’s a well-paying job!
There are lots of grids we’re part of, like food, transportation and the economy. These are difficult or even illegal to separate from, but ultimately, getting and living off the power grid is manageable, and can be cheaper and safer than staying on it.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.