Off the Grid!

Off the Grid!

Let me set the stage for my comments. I’m in the US. I was raised in the eastern US where towns are close together and the power grid runs just about everywhere. I didn’t realize there even was an “off the grid.” Now I live in a very conservative area of Colorado, where there’s a lot of off the grid country, and where I lived off the grid for four years.

There are a few reasons people may choose an off the grid lifestyle.

  1. There are miles and miles of empty country, whether rangeland, prairie, mountains, or desert, where there is no commercially-available power. If you choose to live there and want electricity, you’ll need to generate your own.
  2. There is a minority segment of the population who seems to believe the government is conspiring to take away their individual rights and freedoms. These are people whose goal is to be independent and able to survive in the event of a governmental or societal breakdown. They may have stashes of food, guns, ammunition, and gold or silver, and aim to be entirely self-sufficient.
  3. Another minority are very environmentally conscious, and want to maintain a very low-impact lifestyle.
  4. Local power company service is unreliable.

I should note that the US power grid is quite robust. Outages usually are short, with power restored within hours. I’m sure this is not true in much of the world. A long outage here may be up to two weeks. We had one here in April 2007 when a blizzard snapped off many miles of power poles. But that’s rare — not even a once in a decade occurrence. A one to three day outage as a result of a blizzard is more likely, though even those are unusual.

My property was a mile from the nearest power pole when I purchased it. It was rangeland with a surrounding barbed wire fence and a defunct windmill-powered hand-dug water well. I built a small barn using hand tools, moved my horses here, and bought 2 cows. Over a few years I had a well dug (525 feet deep) with a submersible pump powered by a 5,000 watt gasoline powered generator. I am not mechanically inclined, but I learned how to replace the electrical plug to the pump because it kept melting from use. There were repeated problems with the pull-start on the generator. On a later smaller generator (for running tools) with a switch start, that mechanism also had problems. Generator maintenance involved loading the (very heavy) generator into a vehicle and driving it to town, where it would remain for a week. The loading process was accomplished by slowly lifting the generator, one side at a time, up crude steps made of hay bales.

If you’re actually making the on- versus off-the-grid decision, research your options and know what you’re really getting into.

The points to consider if you want a source of power are:

  1. Cost of installation of any of your power options.
  2. Amount of power provided for that cost.
  3. Reliability of the system. (A place a few miles from here had 3 wind turbines installed, and the wind blew them apart so many times they had to be dismantled and abandoned.)
  4. Cost and ease of maintenance. Are you aware of what’s involved in maintaining your system, and do you have the expertise to handle it?

If you choose to live off the grid and want power, you may have to foot the bill for the nearest power company to run electric lines to your property. Here, you have to either pay $20,000+ per mile to the power company to set poles and run electricity, or find an alternative: generators (not a favorite), wind (of which there is plenty), solar (also plenty). When I looked into it a decade ago, a moderate wind turbine setup was about $30,000. But minimal wind or solar setups may not provide as much power as being on the grid. When you consider what’s involved in solar cell and battery disposal, I’m not convinced that’s any more environmentally friendly than running the grid to one more household.

Some places, if you are on the grid and your wind setup provides more power than you use, the power company will buy back your excess wind power.

For me, the headache of trying to maintain my own power system isn’t worth it. After living nearly four years with no power except the generator at the well a quarter of a mile from where I actually lived, I had power run to the property. A neighbor has a generator that kicks on automatically when their power goes out. Currently during power outages, I use portable propane heaters and a wood-burning fireplace to keep the house above freezing, and use oil lamps or flashlights for light.

Having dealt with off-the-grid for ten years and lived there for four of them, my preference is on the grid. I’ve seen people become proponents of off the grid farming, saying that they want to garden and raise their own livestock. You can farm or raise cows or chickens either on the power grid or off (and I have done both), but it’s a lot easier when you have running water and electricity in your barn. Off the grid farming or ranching, in my opinion, is not bucolic nor romantic; it’s hard work. And you, rather than a power company, are responsible for all the maintenance.

Would I recommend living off the grid? If you love the back country and want to live in a truly remote area, you probably don’t have an on-the-grid choice. If you’re young, healthy, and possess great vigor and zest for life, you possibly can handle it. If you’re considering a home or business that was professionally set up, and you’re able to call a readily available professional to maintain whatever your source of power may be, okay! If you’re willing and able to live with no source of power whatsoever, then its maintenance wouldn’t be an issue. When I did it, it was under primitive living circumstances that were the right thing for me at the time. Would I want to do it again? Probably not for an extended period of time.

Do your research and a thorough analysis of your options. Off-the-grid may be the right choice for some, but it’s not for everyone.