Off Grid Living in the Next Century

If you have notions about setting yourself up for off-grid living, here are some suggested first steps.

| December/January 1998

"I thought I was all for going completely wild and hiking into the mountains with nothing but a backpack and an ax," I scribbled in 1968 (a bad year all-around for America), when my wife Louise and I quit the big city and went in pursuit "of the Good Life:" a low-tech, low-impact, hand-built, self-sufficiency on the land. Our half-baked, Thoreauesque dream of total rustic independence worked for a while in our new home, but was gradually compromised over 30 years in a flurry of family, farm, big dogs, and community life. Now with children grown, our little farmstead community consumed by suburban sprawl, and the homestead hounds passed on to wherever good dogs go, I can once again go as wild as I care to, ax still in hand, but with little other baggage. And it seems that I'm leaving at exactly the right time. Off-grid living in the next century may well permit (perhaps, force) us to exercise the highest degree of personal freedom that is possible today in a modern, urbanized, economically-interdependent republic. We'll remain subject to taxes, laws, and civic duty, but we will thrive best if located completely free of paved roads and sidewalks, water lines, and the myriad self-serving institutions that accompany the power lines, each of them intent on legislating, lobbying, or levying urban-oriented protective tariffs or restrictive codes and regulations that would unreasonably circumscribe our freedom: the combined right and responsibility to provide for ourselves.

The popular term "off-grid" presumes to define all of country life in terms of the absence of a plug into the interconnected network of generating plants and power lines that supply commercial power for a bargain rate of 8¢ to 10¢ per kilowatt/hour. That's if your land already has electric lines out front. If it doesn't, you'll pay the utility up to $35,000 per mile to get them there, and an electrician $1,000 to $2,500 to run a dropline from the pole to the house. If you need to run your line much over 100 feet, you'll need to sink your own poles at $1,000 a pop ...all of which makes independent power-generating systems economically feasible — even if the power they generate ends up costing several times the commercial rates — when the original investment and operating costs are prorated over the eight- to ten-year working life of most systems. The cost is higher in virtually every kind of off-grid system: solar, hydromechanical or hydroelectric, wind or diesel-electric. Or, prospectively, hydrogen fuel cell whenever that rapidly-evolving, zero-emissions technology now restricted to experimental prototypes becomes affordable.

If you love the gadgetry and meters, and have no problem making a permanent investment in time and money for an off-grid solar, hydro, or wind system, then Godspeed. Regardless of your choice, it might be better to learn enough to install and maintain your own low-tech systems before signing the check for a new one.

Nuts to That!

Modem humankind did fine without electricity for at least 10,000 years. The Lascaux cave artists, Socrates, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare worked nights by oil lamp; Abe Lincoln studied law by fireplace light; and Edison invented the electric incandescent lamp by gaslight. Bear with me while — based on my own experience living in places ranging from a camper van, a commercial fishing boat, a camp on the Bay of Fundy, a variety of old houses, and, now, rigging a log cabin in the New England woods — I suggest the range of simple and economical ways to run a complete homestead using handmade power, miles from the power lines.

You may find that you can get along just fine with a hand water pump and solar battery charger plus (grudgingly) a little gas powered generator to run the TV during the World Series or the Three Tenors concerts, and never have to finance and manage that fancy whole-house-powering solar-panel array. One of the best things about alternative energy systems is that you can always add more capacity — buy more solar panels, more battery storage, or a bigger hydra mill or generator. Some of the equipment suppliers will even take trade-ins of outgrown equipment as you upgrade.

But let's begin with the basics.

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