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There’s much talk these days about going off-grid. Exactly what does “off-grid” mean? Most folks take it to mean a home that is capable of generating its own energy. This invariably means electricity and on-site production and management of the thermal energy required to satisfy the heating and cooling needs of the occupants. Water acquisition and waste management often are assumed to also be handled on-site, as well. An off-grid home is completely independent of (and usually assumed to be detached from) public utilities and commercial fuel suppliers.

In this context, the term “grid” is often used generically to refer to the total universe of public utilities and services. And that’s how I’ll use it in this article. I’ve also seen discussions advocating that food production be a capability of an off-grid home, or at least be made obtainable via some simple, local means. So, at least for the purposes of this and a subsequent, follow-on article, I am going to assume the term “grid” to include some means of production and distribution of food, as well.

Why go off-grid? More often than not, it’s usually motivated by a desire to eliminate the demand for (and hence the cost of) utility-provided services, with a concomitant reduction of impact on the earth’s resources. Yet another motivator is the desire to be independent of public utilities for the sake of survivability. A closely related concept here is that of passive survivability; that is, the idea that a home continue to support it’s occupant’s basic needs for shelter, warmth, water and food, during long periods of disruption in utility-provided services. Not every passively survivable home is necessarily off-grid, but a truly off-grid home is passively survivable all the time.

off the grid in the 1930s My own home back in the 1930s when the place was still a small farm

My own home back in the 1930s when the place was still a small farm. A little less than a century ago, a community of off-grid homes was far from an unusual thing.

While the above considerations are highly noble in principle, there seems to be a number of worrisome contradictions associated with the off-grid argument. The first such contradiction is the high, upfront, capital expenditure required to go off-grid. When Henry David Thoreau went off-grid in Walden, back in the 1850s, the man seriously went OFF-GRID, spending two years in a crude hut of his “own construction” while “consoling himself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

Unless you’re ready for this kind of extreme back-to-nature experience, chances are, you’re going to insist on living off-grid with not much less comfort than you had on-grid. This means that going off-grid is going to be an expensive undertaking for most. One needs either to build a net-zero energy, self-sufficient home from scratch, or radically overhaul an existing one to get nearly the same result. And should your plans include on-site food production, you’re going to need some quantity of arable land. I ‘m no expert in calculating how much land is required to support a typical family, but my gut says somewhere between 2 and 5 acres. Of course, the higher the land quality and the better it’s managed, the less you’ll need. But unless you’re planning to become a subsistence farmer, maintaining those 2-5 acres sounds like an awful lot of work for someone who’s also pursuing some other, primary profession.

The bottom line here is that the high start-up costs of transitioning from on-grid to off-grid seems rather contradictory to me, given that the process is supposed to return me to a more essential lifestyle. What about the masses of urban poor? How do they go off-grid? They can’t. It’s a cruel irony that those who would benefit most from a simpler life and healthier food supply are among the very same most excluded from it.

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Original Cover of Henry D. Thoreaux's Walden Life in the Woods. The ultimate account of off-grid living.

Another glaring contradiction is that going off-grid entails ignoring the principle of economy of scale. As stated earlier, an oft-cited benefit of living off-grid is the elimination of the costs of utility-provided services. But it seems to me that much of that eliminated cost is just getting front-loaded into the construction (or remodeling) and provisioning of the off-grid home. I have yet to fully investigate extant studies comparing the upfront cost of going off-grid versus the long-term, ongoing costs of remaining on-grid (and please feel free to point me toward any compelling arguments for one versus the other). But I find it difficult to accept that utility-provided energy is necessarily more expensive over the long run than energy I produce myself, precisely because it’s mass-produced and provided by competing suppliers. So this is the other big contradiction I see in the off-grid argument.

Now, let’s think about what it might mean to find a better way to remain on-grid. Like it or not, the grid is here to stay, and it doesn’t matter how many homeowners spend hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing land and building or renovating homes out in the country in pursuit of an off-grid way of life: There will never be enough true off-grid homes to significantly diminish overall societal dependence on the grid. So the big question is: Is there an alternative way to live on-grid that meets or perhaps even exceeds the goals for green-living, sustainability, and even survivability, that off-grid proponents claim for themselves?

I believe there is, and here’s something of a vision of what it consists of:

Let’s begin by first assuming that I am a person of reasonably sufficient means to transition to a completely off-grid lifestyle, if I really wanted to. But, rather than construct or renovate a home that provides comfortable and independent living off-grid, instead, I devote the same effort and (hopefully somewhat less) upfront capital to achieving something generally equivalent, while still remaining connected to the grid. An objective here is to find some optimal balance between the utilities’ inherent economies of scale and my own upfront and ongoing investment in my home’s ability to generate and manage its own energy. In other words, I go off-grid to a certain extent, but not completely. My total costs are less than were I to go completely off-grid, yet my contribution to sustainability and reduced carbon footprint, etc., is actually greater. (Note that I am only conjecturing that this is possible — I’ve not yet demonstrated this to be the case, neither analytically nor empirically).

The first thing I do is find a suitable, existing home to renovate. (The older, the better! :-) Why do this? Well, by choosing to live in an established home, I am reusing land and structures that have already been developed (and likewise reused by many who came before me), while reducing the demand for undeveloped land and materials that would be necessary for new construction (a significant application of two of the “Three R’s” generally espoused by the green movement).

A big part of my renovation effort would, of course, include establishing a highly effective building envelope, as well as leveraging all possible secondary means of passive thermal performance (e.g.,via landscaping or other site-related enhancements). I believe very strongly that older homes can be made just as thermally efficient as new ones. Sure, it requires coming up with solutions to difficult problems, and then committing financial resources to their implementation, but that’s all part-and-parcel of my overall vision. From a cost perspective, I view this as just a reallocation of some portion of the expense of new construction or renovation that would have been incurred had I gone off-grid, anyway.

wall section 17th century SIPS (minus the insulation, of course)

17th century SIPS (minus the insulation, of course :-). Note the white wash and traces of an old chair rail — This was from back when these oak planks and infill formed the actual interior wall.

The second major component of my vision involves getting the house to produce some degree of its own energy. Exactly how much depends on a trade-off between my design objectives for survivability versus how much money I want to invest in energy production versus how much I might possibly be able to supply back to the grid. Even though I’m on-grid, I still want to minimize my use of it. And, when possible, I’d like to contribute back to the grid. For example, using solar panels, or even more esoteric technologies, like micro-CHP, I can possibly plan for periods of time when I have excess electrical power that I don’t need, and can readily sell back to my electrical power supplier. My home has now become an energy provider, not just a consumer. The fact that I am attached to the grid means that I can provide back to the grid, reducing overall community demand on the grid that much further. But I can’t do this if I’m living somewhere off in isolation.

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And finally, the third major component of my vision is the intelligent use of (energy efficient) home appliances and energy management devices, as well as the ongoing and planned upgrading and fine-tuning of my complete home energy system. Again, being on-grid has its advantages, as it enables me to take advantage of emerging “smart-grid” devices and meters and services as they evolve over time. My vision requires that ongoing reinvestment be made in integrating new smart devices and services as they become available and proven.

a hybrid approach to sustainability :: John Poole Reclaiming the urban forest

Reclaiming the urban forest — Better this old silver maple go into some nice, hand-hewn furniture, than become fodder for the wood chipper.

In summary, I believe (but have yet to prove) that my “staying on-grid” vision not only satisfies, but exceeds, the sustainability and green-living criteria advocated by off-grid proponents. In fact, future efforts of mine in this area will attempt to develop a more rigorous, empirical basis for this claim, as well as a number of real world projects that I hope will demonstrate the efficacy of this strategy. Note that the one aspect of my vision that I have yet to address is where food production fits in this picture. That will be the topic of a follow-on article.

And finally, I’d like to point out that I am not in any way criticizing any one out there who desires to pursue, or support others in pursuing, a true off-grid way of life. If that is what you really want to do, by all means, do it. You have my support. What I am offering up, however, is an alternative vision that I believe actually exceeds the positive results associated with going off-grid.

Note from the hosts:  Look for Part 2 of John’s dissertation in coming weeks. Thanks John. jb