Transitioning Off the Grid

Reader Contribution by John Klar
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It is likely that we Americans will all be living off grid, in due course. Author Wendell Berry has observed that we are rapidly consuming the earth’s limited resources, and that our only “hope” may be in our collapse. As dark as such a thought may sound, it may be an unavoidable result of treating energy and commodities as undepletable, or of living beyond our financial and environmental means.

The popularity of tiny houses and off-grid homes harkens to the “back-to-the-land” movement of Helen and Scott Nearing here in Vermont, repeated in the oil crisis of the 1970’s. But when oil prices receded, so did Americans’ penchant for simpler, more self-reliant living. Henry David Thoreau advocated for a more independent life in his famous narrative about his sojourn at Walden Pond in New Hampshire. But living off-grid need not be the passion solely of the recluse: it appeals equally to those who wish to live sustainably, reduce their carbon footprint, or simply live more affordably.

My grandmother, a Depression-weathered farmer who recently passed away at age 100, said “There are two ways to get rich: earn more, or spend less.” I wish to offer here some suggestions on how to wean oneself off fossil fuel dependency, particularly for those who are of limited financial means. 

There are many people who desire to move off-grid, but are caught in the modern cycle of dependency whereby each paycheck goes to current subsistence, and the idea of living off-grid seems as remote as living in the Caribbean. Here are some ideas to consider:

1. The beginning is land. Unlike conventional housing where people buy house and land together, banks (especially in the present financial market) do not generally loan against raw land. And where they do, they typically expect 50% down. But with rural areas in malaise, more sellers will consider owner financing. Don’t wait for conventional financing — start looking now, as the search itself is educational and will fuel your dreams.

2. Building a small house, without grid or other immediate power, allows a foothold from which an addition or further improvements may be added. This is the way the old timers used to do it — build as you go, financed by the savings from what was once spent on rent or a large mortgage. A tiny house will serve the purpose, or a small permanent shack that will one day be the living room or kitchen in a larger residence.

3. Be willing to sacrifice the present for the future. One need not have a massive power array to live off-grid. A small generator is a luxury in the short term, while savings from former utility bills are accumulated for solar, hydro, or other alternative power sources. Don’t be misled by those who say that “solar power costs $30,000” — that is only true if one demands the massive energy consumption from which we all must be weaned.

4. Buy windows, building materials, and other supplies at discount. This is the age of Craiglist. Utility trumps aesthetics. Windows of different sizes and colors can still be energy efficient. Others’ leftover building supplies can often be had “for a song.”

5. Consider a portable sawmill, to transform standing trees into a standing frame. For the modest budget, this can be a very economical way to create post-and-beam timbers while clearing land for garden or house-site.

6. Explore gravity-fed water, and whether state water laws permit such a use. (Amazingly, many modern laws prohibit this time-honored water supply.) Building codes should also be evaluated, where applicable: many building codes mandate petroleum-based insulation and exclude straw-bale or organic wool fibers. Crazy, but true.

Living off grid is sensible, even for those who do not embrace it as a moral mandate. But too many people hesitate to take the first step, or even thoroughly investigate the possibility, because they wrongly perceive that such a shift requires a huge leap, or massive capital. I hope these ideas serve to encourage more daring nature-lovers to seek the path to sustainable homesteading!  

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