Off Grid? What’s That Mean?

Photo compliments of Carl

Different things to different people, for Carl and me, “off grid” means living in a normal house with flush toilets and showers but no dishwasher. The difference is, we get our power from the sun via solar panels, and have no wires connecting us to that inefficient, uneconomic thing called the national power grid. Thus the term “off grid”. On sunny, summer days, we get lots of power and try to think up ways to use it. The opposite of frugal. Because if we don’t use the power being generated by recharging our batteries, or doing laundry, or charging our electric vehicles, that power gets dumped into the ground. Shocking but true. Like running the faucet full blast while brushing one’s teeth. What a waste!

BUT! Just because we are off grid does not mean we are fossil fuel free. We have our solar array but, on days and weeks that the sun doesn’t shine, or does so minimally—think winter, or this soggy, white sock spring—we have our generator. It recharges our batteries that, in turn, run our electricity, and our back-up heating system when we go away and aren’t there to stoke the wood stove. Especially in winter, and when we have houseguests, (or did I mention this soggy, white sock spring?) we go over our electricity budget and our generator powers on. Representative of the devastation of pristine Canadian lands, and earthquakes in Oklahoma, Alabama and elsewhere, our generator destroys any vision of low carbon footprint that I might have held because it runs on propane, a.k.a. fracked gas. 

The fact is, there is little in our current life and infrastructure that the typical American can do to avoid fossil fuels and the consequent harm to the environment. Our buildings and transportation, agriculture and commercial industries, heating and cooling—all are based on coal, oil, gas, and nuclear energy, with a smidgen of renewables tossed in. Are Carl and I delusional, thinking we might make a difference living off grid? Solar panels use precious resources. They take energy to produce and transport, and destroy the lands from whence they come. Ditto fancy electric vehicles. 

They are better than not. Our cars now run, for the most part, on the sun. And even if, and when, we charge them at a charging station? Where does that power come from? In New Hampshire, it’s likely nuclear. In Vermont, it’s more likely renewables. And so, ever on the edge of being precious, we make it a point to try to charge in Brattleboro. It takes on hour and twenty minutes to get a full charge. That’s enough time to walk to the co-op, shop, have a quick lunch, and walk back up that very steep hill, with groceries, but still—a full charge! Three hundred miles. We just have to plan, budget, and remember to plug in on sunny days. 

Carl and I are privileged to be early adopters. We are the guinea pigs of is-this-going-to-work? We are learning that good is better than perfect and that, even on cloudy days, our solar panels provide us with some power. We are learning to charge up the house batteries first, and then move on to the car batteries. Sometimes we use the 220 plug and, sometimes, the 110 because, even if we only charge during the day (because we’ll use up all our battery storage at night, otherwise) and even if the 110 only gives us 4-5 miles an hour, it’s something. We now know that every little bit helps, and that everyone might not be able to afford solar panels and electric vehicles but a lot of people out there make choices every day that make a difference. 

For example, Carl and I attended a NHSaves workshop and learned that, if you insulate your roof and take care of leaks in your basement, you’ll save a lot of the energy that you thought was going out the windows. Check out NHSaves.com. You’ll find all sorts of ways to spend money in order to save money. Rebates, energy audits and weatherization programs. And then there are all the actions you hear about that it’s just a matter of doing. Take that first step and walk or bike, instead of driving. (I know, easier in a city than the country, and so read on!) Eat a more plant-based diet. Compost. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. And call your representatives on the local, state and national level and demand the transition to a resilient and sustainable infrastructure because we have the technologies. We have only to use them. If we get our town, state and national government on board, it will be that much easier for more of us—and it is us, not them—to get off our fossil fuel addiction and find alternative ways of being.