Going off grid sounds exciting.
Many people approach it with a sense of adventure as if they were going camping, living in a camper van, trailer or small cabin. The high tech aspect consist of adding a small solar photo voltaic panel to power a set of LED lights and maybe a laptop computer.
I have seen people express the sentiment that going off grid was a way to get away from people, society and the evils of modern technology. Many people seem to equate going off grid with freedom. But freedom from what?
My wife grew up on a homestead that is off grid. Still is for that matter. She had five uncles one of which still resides on the homestead but the rest could not wait to escape from the drudgery and hard work involved with living off grid, and go live and work closer to a community of other people and coincidentally connected to the grid.
Community starts with two or more people joiNing together to achieve some common goal that is too difficult for one person to accomplish. However if that community grows so large that members do not know each other ( or care) we begin to see problems develop. The problems of big cities and urban blight has its origins in this trend. “off grid” suggest there is something inherently wrong about a grid. In fact even the definition of “off-grid” seems to vary according to who you speak to. Some people would argue that doing without a connection to the municipal electrical grid is not enough. They argue you must be totally self sufficient and disconnected from water, sewer, natural gas, as well as electricity in order to qualify as being “off grid”. But does that make sense?
Doing so negates all the benefits of communal efforts and benefits. At one time I lived in a place where a group of houses were provided with clean, safe, water from a private source. One person had an artesian well on his property and started supplying his neighbors because their shallow wells had bad water which was further contaminated by run off from the multiple septic tile beds because each person had his own septic system. Oh yeah, everyone was totally independent and off grid.
Eventually a municipal sewage system was built and a municipal water system replaced the old private system. Everyone agreed this was a good thing. But it was now a grid. Same thing with electricity. Instead of every house having their own noisy generator spewing out noxious fumes; a river had been dammed for a sawmill and a grain mill so it made sense to also install a turbine to make electricity . It provided enough electricity to power many homes.
Electricity was favoured because it was less dangerous that kerosene lanterns and easier to install than piped natural gas.
So what went wrong? Today people want to disconnect from these communal benefits and go it alone.
They want to go off-grid. Go live like a hermit in a pokey little van or trailer?
So what are the benefits of going off grid?
To begit with it does allow placing a a real house residence in geographical area well beyond the present reach of the utility grid.
So much of today’s business consist of data management it could be done anywhere. It does not require cramming people into cubicles inside a high rise bee hive made of steel and concrete. Modern cellular phone systems and satellite communications means people around the globe can stay in touch.
Telecommuting has become possible as a way of life . With skilled and well trained people even high tech cottage industries are possible. For five years my wife assembled electronic controllers used in production equipment that in turn was used to produce high quality aerospace equipment for satellites and aircraft. I worked in a design office that literally spanned a continent. We stayed in touch with FTP file exchanges, MSN instant messengers, and skype.
The real benefit of the off-grid movement lie in the fact it teaches self reliance and a greater awareness for the need to conserve natural resources. It cuts down on waste because the people who waste resources suffer the consequences of their own folly.
A side benefit is the fact peoPle can live in less crowded conditions. All the evidence points to over crowding as being among the principle causes of most of our society’s ills.
Among electrical utility companies a technical term is often used. Its called “islanding” and refers to what happens when a generator source is cut off from the larger grid. Its like an island and only an limited number of end users can be services from this generating source. If this isolated power source happesn to be a very large capacity generator much of its potential is wasted. For example if Niagara Falls was cut off and only those homes within 10 miles radius could be serviced; that would be a waste. With a larger grid, homes several hundred miles away can be powered from the generators located at the falls.
With off-grid every home becomes an island. That is not exactly efficient. A few hundred miles away from my location there is a tiny village with a respectably tall water fall. An enterprising individual resurrected the old saw mill dam and installed an electric generator. He is now able to supply all the homes in the area plus sell back some surplus energy to the big utility.
This is one of those situations that is neither fish nor fowl. The person started out just wanting to provide his own electricity but discoverred he could generate enough surplus to supply other people. So he made his own grid and eventually interconnected to the larger grid.
Engineers call this taking advantage of the economies of scale. To double the useable output does not cost twice as much.
Natural gas is now used in most homes because it burns cleaner and has fewer green house gas emissions and the combustion exhaust contains fewer noxious substances compared to coal and oil. Unfortunately the pipe distribution system is controlled by giant corporations intent only on increasing the profit margin for their stock holders.
The unfortunate consequence is that some of those households that are able; now switch to using wood as a heating fuel. Even in small towns of 5,000 or 10,000 a concentration of wood burning heating appliances can degrade the air quality under the right wheather conditons. Here is an example where getting off the gas distribution grid is not so beneficial. Hower the driving force is the pursuit of ever increasing profits that is the root cause not the fact a pipeline network is able to supply end users far removed from the source of that natural gas.
Going off grid has its benefits but sometimes staying on grid also has benefits. Before deciding to go off-grid all relevant factors should be considered.
Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site
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