OFF THE GRID: An Untethered Future

July 20 2008 / by Antonio Manfredi / In association with Future
Category: The Home   Year: General   Rating: 8 Hot

Events of the last five years have shown us that living on the grid, dependent on large utility companies, has been anything but stable. Large electric companies, still reliant on fossil fuel to generate power, have been forced to raise prices dramatically. An antiquated series of electrical lines, transformers, and switches have produced devastating blackouts that have cost our economy billions. With global demand for energy expected to rise, and the cost of upgrading infrastructure approaching hundreds of billions, living off the grid may become a highly plausible and desirable future for many people.

In order to live off the grid you need to tie production and consumption together, creating small scale systems for water and power that require no outside support. It also requires a heavy dose of conservation and efficiency, utilizing a system that operates within the constraints of a limited source. Living off the grid requires a large up front investment in equipment and expertise, and a pioneering spirit. Costs for solar and wind generation systems routinely cost tens of thousands of dollars, yielding a cost per kilowatt hour that exceeds that of the grid. Nonetheless it is becoming an option many people are beginning to consider as the marketplace changes. More and more people are looking to raw materials for energy that are free, inexhaustible, and clean.

As innovation and subsidies collide in the market to create critical mass for residential solar and wind systems, it is reasonable to expect demand for these technologies to grow. According to Solar Buzz, a San Francisco-based industry research company, demand for solar power has grown 20-25% a year for the last twenty years. Many of these applications of solar power come in the form of on the grid solutions, however many of these are distributed at the point of use. It is however the biggest choice for off the grid applications. Demand has grown so fast that more silicon now goes into photovoltaics than computer chips. (cont.)

Wind has also become an alternative in the most recent years. It is important to understand with any of these residential energy solutions that a tailored approach is key. In other words what works in one area may not necessarily work in another. Costs of energy produced through wind can be one-quarter that of solar. Costco has been selling residential wind turbines for several years, and the products are becoming increasingly reliable and cost effective.

With major utilities requiring massive and cumbersome projects to take the next technological leap forward, the home may be fertile ground for planting the latest technological seeds. Prices for solar power have dropped precipitously, and the technology is only getting better. In 1993 it cost 3700 yen per watt in Japan for solar systems, in 2002 it was 700 yen per watt. Within the next ten years the improvement could be staggering.

Living off the grid also means harvesting, conserving, and recycling water. The most radical systems are built into the home, collecting rain fall and using the water in stages. Grey water, water that has been partially used, can be used to supply plants and grasses. The biggest story by far with water is efficiency. It is estimated the US wastes over 900 billion gallons a year in homes alone according to the EPA. In response the EPA has started public review of a new program called WaterSense, a means of designating single family homes as water efficient. This public review is open until July 21, 2008. WaterSense toilets alone could save 11,000 gallons annually in a new home.

The huge application of off the grid technologies however is the third world. Much as was the case with cell phones (build cost effective cell towers rather than costly land lines in remote areas), OTG technologies are so perfect for these areas it was like it was made for them (solar also is very effective in areas of strong sunlight-hello India and Southeast Asia.) With economic growth in these areas exploding, we may be facing a shift from investment toward off the grid technologies unlike the world has ever seen.

Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. It all comes down to cost. You’re not going to see people saving water from rain run-off, using compost toilets, raising chickens or putting in solar panels unless it makes sense from a cost perspective. That day is probably right around the corner…

    Posted by: John Heylin   July 21, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  2. Thanks for the informative post.

    Posted by: fantasywriter   July 21, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

  3. Nice post—and important to raise up questions about the future of the grid. I’m not so sure it will be the only method for delivery electricity to the world and few people realize how likely a major system collapse is given the age (and broadcast design model) of our infrastructure.

    And systems that help us reuse things like water and biomass trash are certain to come online sooner rather than later.

    Well done…!

    You raise good points on local production- and you might want to look at another area – local storage. Being able to store electricity (electrons) from the grid locally in batteries or as hydrogen for fuel cells good add a nice layer of redundancy to the power grid. It could also be used to feed an electric-hydrogen vehicle (or vice versa)

    By storing electrons locally, we are not tied to the real-time ‘flow’ but still use the grid to draw down energy. This is an era of Energy Appliances and local power management systems. The utilities could operate fewer plants at full capacity and still get power ‘out to the edges’—just like a peer to peer internet system. Storage is a huge opportunity!

    Posted by: Garry Golden   July 23, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend