Future Tense

Is Off-Grid Living Sustainable?

A house with solar panels appears at the end of a path between trees.
Daria Nepriakhina/Unsplash

When you think of someone going off-grid—living in a house that is entirely self-sufficient, with no connection to utility companies—you maybe picture some sort of doomsday prepper in a Unabomber shed out in the wilderness. But Ivan Penn, the renewable energy correspondent for the New York Times, says that’s not the reality. In his reporting, he found people living off-grid in modern, middle-class homes, even on large estates with hot tubs and swimming pools. But is there a downside to being entirely off-the-grid?

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On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Penn about the appeal of going off-grid and the possible consequences of a mass exodus from the electrical grid. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Seth Stevenson: If I actually wanted to go off-grid—just the solar panels and the batteries, not the land and the house—how much would that set me back?

Ivan Penn: On the low end, $35,000 or $50,000, and according to contractors who are focusing on off-grid systems, typically up to about $100,000.

I think a lot of people have a sense that there are tax incentives for putting solar panels on your roof or government subsidies that are going to help you pay for it. Can you get help with the cost of installing an off-grid system?

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Yeah, and that’s actually one of the really big things that kind of makes a difference today. There is the federal tax incentive. It used to be 30 percent. It’s stepped down to now about the mid-20s. Eventually that’s going to go away unless Congress re-ups it.

Have there been improvements in the technology lately that have made it more feasible to have your own little self-contained energy infrastructure?

In the past what you saw were people who would use technologies like lead-acid batteries coupled with some kind of backup generator. The lead-acid batteries, they weigh a lot—one homeowner I spoke to had 12,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries. The technologies have really changed from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion batteries that you can hang on your wall. That’s a huge dramatic shift. And of course, solar panels continue to become more and more efficient, and the costs continue to drop. We’ve seen the cost drop from about $11.40 a watt to less than $4 a watt.

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Do you have a sense of how many people in the United States are already off-grid, or how much the off-grid trend has been accelerating?

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No one knows exactly how many people are off-grid. Obviously it becomes difficult to track because they’re off the grid. We spoke to some folks at an organization called Primal Survivor, a disaster preparedness site. What they ran into was a huge uptick in requests for information about going off-grid.

During wildfires in California in 2019, electric companies preemptively shut off power to more than 800,000 customers, imperiling people who depend on electrically powered devices like ventilators or dialysis machines. Storms in Texas last year left millions more without electricity, and deaths from hypothermia resulted as people lost the power to heat their homes amid frigid temperatures. Thanks to climate change, aging equipment, and other factors, our electric grids are less reliable than ever. But solar panels alone won’t keep your lights on. You need a whole system, including batteries, to store the power your panels collect.

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In these kinds of emergencies, when the electric grid goes down, if you only have solar panels, you’re still going to be without power. But if you have a battery, you can still have power, so people started buying more batteries because of the wildfires. People start seeing all of this and these have become real drivers for them to say, “You know what? I’m going to look at batteries. I’m going to look at solar.” And this is where the potential of electric vehicles, as not only a transportation source but a battery source, is really coming into focus right now.

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Is that a cheaper, smaller-footprint way to do it?

It’s the combination, especially for the cost. If you’re able to both get a battery that can help power your home, as well as a vehicle, you get it all in one package. As opposed to having to buy the lithium-ion battery and install that in the garage, you have it all packaged in an EV.

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Is there an element of exacerbating inequality here? Where it’s the people who can afford the big upfront costs of going off-grid who then will benefit over the long term, whereas the people who maybe don’t have the money right away can’t afford to do it, and then year after year they’re bleeding money by paying the power company?

Realistically, most people are not going to defect from the grid, at least not anytime soon, so you’ve got to maintain the grid for any foreseeable future. As such, who’s going to pay for it? With the federal goals that have been set—the president pushing for 500,000 vehicle chargers, half the vehicles on the road he wants to be electric by 2030—those shifts in technology are going to require upgrades to the electric grid. And who pays for that but the consumers who are on the grid?

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The other side of the argument is that rooftop solar is a form of energy efficiency. It takes load off the grid. It helps to reduce the need to build more big-box power plants, more transmission lines. Then, the excess electricity that a rooftop solar homeowner or business has, those electrons flow like water. They follow the path of least resistance. If a rooftop solar owner sends an electron to the grid, say from Los Angeles, that electron’s not going to Las Vegas. That electron is going to the neighborhood where that electron has been produced, and so there’s a benefit to a person’s neighbor for the person who built a power plant on their rooftop.

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But if you go off-grid, you’re no longer benefiting your neighbor that way. Right?

Well, not directly, but then there are the related benefits of your neighbor has power. In the case of Hurricane Ida, you had a homeowner who had solar and batteries and was able to provide charging for people’s phones. It’s the energy version of, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” You get that benefit from your neighbor as well.

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Along with the upside of being self-sufficient where if everyone else’s power goes out you still have yours, there’s the downside where if your power goes out, you can’t just call the electric company, you’re on your own. Is that a big problem for people who’ve gone off-grid?

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You are on your own, and that’s a significant consideration. But a lot of these folks have planned out what it is that they’re doing. Several of them have just said, “I never lose power. It’s not a problem for me.” They admit, “I was a little scared at first, but the longer I’ve stayed in my house, the more I realize I have more reliable service than the electric grid right now.”

In February, the California Public Utilities Commission was due to vote on some measures that would slash the incentives for homeowners to install rooftop solar. Then, they delayed that vote indefinitely, and it’s still up in the air. Can you walk me through the debate around that vote? You wrote in your piece that both sides of the debate consider themselves proponents of renewable energy.

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The effort by the California regulators was to say, “We have, for years, subsidized those who have solar on their rooftops.” In the beginning, the idea was to get an industry going, and now there is well over a million rooftops in California that have rooftop solar. The question was, “What is the appropriate amount of compensation that they receive when they send the excess power that their solar generates to the grid? And how do they pay their fair share if they remain connected to the grid? They’re not grid defectors. There are all the other services and components to the grid that if they’re connected, shouldn’t they pay something?”

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On the other side is the utility scale. Everyone agrees that, “Well, it’s going to benefit us in dealing with climate change to decarbonize the grid.” And the utilities argue, “Well, it’s cheaper to build a solar farm. A solar panel for a solar farm is cheaper than a solar panel on a rooftop. So if we’re going to attack the climate change issue, we should build more solar farms, wind farms, and large-scale batteries, because that benefits larger numbers of people at lower cost.”

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One way of looking at it is that the power companies are basically trying to hold onto customers by lobbying the state to impose fines on people who want to go off-grid. Is that a fair way of viewing it?

It’s not even just off-grid, but just those who want to use solar and batteries. It’s basically, “We’ve got these levers we need to adjust. We need to make sure that we aren’t overcompensating the rooftop solar owners at this point. Because what we do now is give them the equivalent of the retail rate for the electricity that they send to the grid.” And the utilities argue that, “We can get that same electricity on the wholesale market at a fraction of that cost, and so we need to reduce that compensation because that’s hurting those who are on the grid. They’re basically subsidizing these rooftop solar owners.”

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Whether you’re fully off-grid or generating and storing some of your own energy with rooftop panels and batteries but staying connected to the grid, you’re still to some extent shaping what the cost of electricity will be for everybody else. But what would happen if everybody went off-grid, each of us our own power station? Would that be energy utopia or could shutting down the grid altogether have terrible unintended consequences?

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In the short term, you’re not going to have everybody off the grid. There’s an evolving role for the utility to play in managing electrons. The evolution of how we power our lives can mean a lot of different things. In Utah, in the Salt Lake City area, there’s a new apartment complex with 600 apartments. Every unit has its own battery. There’s solar at the apartment complex. They can take the electricity from all those batteries, and harness that, and send it to the electric grid to provide support for the grid. As well as each of those apartments has its own backup battery if the grid goes down. There’s just a wide range of possibilities for where energy is going both for individuals as well as for everyone collectively. It’s not so much the elimination of any particular one, but the possibilities that it all creates.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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