Off the Grid
Inside the movement for more space, less government,
and true independence in modern America
Nick Rosen
Penguin Books, New York (USA), 2010
292 pages

For the time being, there are only a few quotes from the book here.

The back-to-the-land movement is having its time again. A few hundred thousand elderly ex-hippies —or maybe enduring hippies— who went rural in the 1970s have now been joined by a younger generation, many of whom have abandoned the rat race in the past few years as economic conditions have worsened. Some were forced out. Others in secure jobs used the downturn to reappraise their values. They are sick of traffic, pollution, and the consumer-driven society. They have lost all trust in bankers and politicians. They are looking for a better way. Mike's youngest daughter is an urban environmentalist —the latest face of the back-to-the-land movement. She would take up her father's off-grid legacy, if at all, for the health of the planet. But going off the grid is only partly about living a greener life. It is also about freedom from the daily commute, mortgage-induced wage slavery, and corporate mass-markting. True, people who survive without municipally supplied power and water are likely to reduce their carbon footprint —that esoteric calculation of the damage our every move is doing to the planet— but this makes them merely accidental environmentalists, assuming they use wind or solar power for electrical energy, capture rainwater for washing and drinking, and dispose of their own organic waste, perhaps with a composting toilet that replaces water with wood chips and allows the mix to mature for six months before returning it to the soil. With a certain design approach known as eco-architecture, warmth comes directly from the sun through big windows in the walls of the home. Solar thermal water heaters, wood-burning stoves, and ground-source heat pumps —which extract the heat from the ground— can also provide minimally harmful warmth.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 5)

The main requirement is a change of mind-set. Americans are happy and proud to buy and use recycled toilet paper, but a composting toilet is another matter, a level most people won't even think about. Most Americans are taught, or at the very least encouraged to believe, that homes must be a certain way. Well before the invention of TV, marketers pushed "ideal lifestyle" scenarios that included fridges and washing machines and electric gadgets of all kinds. The power companies, of course, subsidized the development and marketing of these products, and intentionally or not, dependence on the grid became a fact of life in America. Living in homes that are the exceptions to this rule are hippies and traditional back woodsmen (and women).

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 6)

The most familiar —to me, because this is the reason I was looking myself— are those whose off-grid properties are second or vacation homes, places to duck out from the stresses and ills of modern society: unhealthy lifestyles, fast food, commuter hell, urban violence, high rents, work deadlines, and uptight clients. The off-grid second home is a true escape from all that. The conventional second home is too often nothing more than a replica of the primary residence, an additional home simply situated in a difference place that fosters the same habits from which one is trying to escape.

Then there are what might be called transitionalists or "off-grid-ready" residents. Their homes are their primary residences and are still connected to the grid, but they have solar or wind power and have reduced their energy and water consumption to the extent that they could if necessary live happily with just a few solar panels (or the equivalent) and a single rainwater tank. Traditionalists tend to believe that we are in the age of peak oil —meaning that the supply of affordable energy is dwindling. They are also motivated by ecological concerns.

Most of us feel the need to have flushing toilets and municipal power. Some people, for whatever reason, do not have that need. They are just the same as the rest of us, yet, unlikely as it may sound, they feel perfectly relaxed looking after their own power, water, and waste disposal. They spend their money on the things that are most important to them: With a limited budget, they are prepared to sacrifice the grid in return for a more desirable location or a larger house or a bigger yard. They have chosen to live off the grid in order to enjoy what they aspire to have on the grid.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 14)

Yes, it's convenient. We come in, flip a switch, and there is light; we turn a handle and water comes out of the tap. And I understand that for most of us, most of the time, the grid is welcoming. It bestows a sense of security; we know that someone is looking out for our power and water.

But today, all those things are available without the grid. The latest inverters, renewable energy sources, and rainwater-capture systems can provide for our needs. As the country prepares to spend hundreds of billions to upgrade the grid and transform it into the "smart grid," it is worth reminding ourselves how we came to build the grid in the first place.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 22)

Historian David Nye, in his book Electrifying America, says that managerial capitalism was possible only "in a large integrated market which allowed one company to produce in quantity at a few efficient sites and to sell the product to a large market." There in a nutshell is the rationale and the justification for the grid. It was not to help the consumer, nor to give communities more control over their own lives, nor necessarily to guarantee a more reliable flow of energy —that was a by-product. The grid came into existence to optimize the efficiency (and hence profitability) for the producer. Society has organized itself around this approach to business, and in doing so, I beieve, has tied itself in knots.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 24)

Since the early stages of the grid, GE had been working hard to increase their sales of products other than lightbulbs. Merely running a few lights per household did not require the huge central generators that GE was building, nor did it require the elaborate power grid that was being planned. Things could have proceeded differently. Just as today the smart grid is hardly inevitable and not necessarily in the consumers' interests, back then the grid was not the only logical conclusion and not the best solution for the market. "It could have been a much less centralized system, even balkanized," David Nye told me. If the opposition had been better organized, or the pro-electricity lobby had not been so well funded, or if a man named Bruce Fairchild Barton had not come along when he did, the grid might never have formed.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, pp. 29-30)

Thanks to GE, the American housewife, as portrayed in advertisements of this period, was a pitiable creature —isolated in her home, demanding evermore electrical goods while her husband went off to work. No wonder that by the early 1970s, as the back-to-the-land movement gatherd pace, many educated American women no longer wished to be one.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 33)

Imagine for a moment that the smart grid does work, that in the future the entire US grid will consist of power switching this way and that as sensors convey usage information to central computers, the price varying depending on demanda. Who is going to decide who will get that last extra unit of energy on a sweltering day when everyone is using the air-conditioning? Will it be the steel mill in Pittsburgh? Or the little old lady short of breath in the heart of Georgia? It will be decided by a pricing mechanism of some sort, and rather like airline tickets, electricity will be relatively cheap when nobody wants it, and jaw-droppingly expensive when demand is at its peak. For the big corporations with their managerial approach, this is perfect. What about everyone else?

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, p. 39)

Many of the same conflicts and principles that drove the expansion of the electricity business also drove the water-supply industry in the early twentieth century. The push for size obscured arguments about the public interest; scale was everything. Businessmen and politicians agreed on this assessment. Population growth, especially in the Western states, was only part of the reason. Industrial processes needed more water, and the water industry itself preferred big projects.

But there is only one crucial difference between water and electricity: Water is essential for life; power, while highly desirable and life-enhancing, is non-essential.

The initial demand for pure water delivered under pressure came from firefighters and from the health industry, especially as the germ theory of disease spread from the UK to America. As cities grew they needed more water, so battles began between those who wanted to bring it to the cities and those (mainly farmers and other property owners with water rights) who wanted to leave it where it was.

The pattern was established. Tension between municipal authorities and private water companies led, in many cases, to the municipalization of the water companies. Once they were brought under government control, they became tools of the politicians, and were used to line individual pockets, to promote population policy, and, in particular, to promote the growth of metropolitan areas. The political parties preferred to focus on urban initiatives because it was easier to bring out the vote in densely populated cities.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, pp. 40-41)

For a long time the health-related arguments for centralized, carefully monitored water have prevailed. But the belief that water is healthier when it is centralized has now reversed, and in many cases the water is now healthier when it is not centralized. It still needs to be treated and filtered, and that can now be done locally. The point of collection can be the same as the point of consumption, and that means greater predictability and contol for the end user. In the same way that energy from a solar panel on the roof will not diminish traveling down the wire, water sourced on site does not go through a transmission system and cannot be contaminated.

(Nick Rosen: Off the grid, pp. 40-41)

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