The Cost of Going Off-Grid

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S1: When you think of someone going off grid, living in a house that’s entirely self-sufficient with no connection to the utility companies, most of us count on to power all our stuff. You may be picture of some sort of doomsday prepper and a Unabomber spread out there in the wilderness. But Ivan Pan says that’s not the reality.

S2: Sure, there are those who are, you know, living in the tiny homes, rustic cabins. But what really surprised me was there are people in just really modern middle class homes and in some cases very large estates, some with hot tubs, swimming pools. And they were operating entirely without any connection to the electric grid.

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S1: Even as the renewable energy correspondent for The New York Times. And he recently reported on people who’d chosen to go off grid, setting up solar panels and battery systems so they can disconnect their homes from the utility companies power lines. What he found was that they weren’t necessarily tree hugging hippies, but they weren’t necessarily survival preparedness types who are obsessed with self-reliance either.

S2: These were your typical everyday people from all walks of life.

S1: In most cases, the emotions driving people’s decisions to go off grid are more familiar than you might expect.

S2: People always have this love hate relationship with the utility companies we want. We want to make sure that the lights stay on. But we get upset when we get the bill and too, when the power goes out. You know, the idea of being able to have your own energy independence. I think that that that is a compelling thing for all of us.

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S1: One Off-Grid are who I’ve been interviewed. A tech executive in California boasted about the reliability of the massive high capacity solar panel system he installed on his property.

S2: He said, Look, I never lose power. Not even for a quote nanosecond. Whereas in the last year that he’s lived in this this new home, his neighbors have lost power as many as three times.

S1: But then this tech exact said something else, something that was less about being safe from power outages or saving money on electrical bills and was more about using electricity, however you damn well please.

S2: He said, Hey, look, my dad, you know, growing up would say, you know, turn off the lights, you know, make sure that we’re not burning too much electricity. Is that for me? It doesn’t matter. I can burn as much. I keep the lights on. I can keep the air on. He’s he’s generating so much power that he started mining bitcoin.

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S1: Today on the show. Going off grid can seem appealing in lots of ways, but are there downsides if everyone unplugs from the system? Are there consequences we haven’t considered? I’m Seth Stevenson in for Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us. I confess, I sometimes have a daydream about buying a very cheap piece of property in the middle of nowhere and building a little shack that’s completely off the electrical grid. In case I want to flee there with my family when the zombies come and the apocalypse begins. So I asked Ivan Penn if I actually wanted to go off grid, just the solar panels and the batteries, but the wind in the house. How much would that set me back?

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S2: Yeah, on the low end, you know, 35 or 50,000. And according to contractors who are focusing on off grid systems, typically up to about $100,000.

S1: 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?

S2: Yeah, and that’s actually one of the really big things that kind of makes a difference today. You know, there is the federal tax incentive that used to be 30%. It’s a step down to now at about the mid-twenties. Eventually that’s going to go away unless Congress upset.

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S1: Have there been improvements in the technology lately that have made it more feasible to have your own little self-contained energy infrastructure?

S2: So in the past, what you saw were people who would use technologies like lead acid batteries and they would couple those with some kind of backup generator. The lead acid batteries, they they they weigh a lot. So in one case, it was a homeowner I spoke to. He he has £12,000 of lead acid batteries. So the technologies have really changed from lead acid batteries that way a lot to lithium ion batteries that you can hang on your wall. You know, 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 costs drop from about $11.40 a watt to less than $4 a lot. You’ve seen such a huge dramatic drop in the cost and the increase in efficiency that these are the some of the the really huge drivers.

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S1: Give a sense of how many people in the United States are already off grid or how much the Off-Grid trend has been accelerating.

S2: No one particularly knows exactly how many people are off grid, you know, obviously, because it’s difficult to track because they’re off the grid. We spoke to some folks at an organization called Primal Survivor. It’s a disaster preparedness site. And what they ran into was a huge uptick in requests for information about going off grid.

S1: One clear reason for all those messages to primal survivor dot net, just turn on the news.

S3: California’s largest utility is warning tonight that it’s going to cut off power to more than 800,000 customers to prevent its equipment from sparking wildfires. The National Weather Service.

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S1: 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.

S2: Millions without electricity in Texas.

S1: No heat storms in Texas last year left millions more without electricity. Deaths from hypothermia resulted as people lost the power to heat their homes amid frigid temperatures. And if it feels like these blackouts are happening more often, you’re right. Thanks to climate change. Aging equipment and other factors are 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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S2: 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. And that was a surprise to many homeowners who lost power, whether it was because the utility company cut off the power to ensure that their equipment didn’t spark a wildfire during a heavy windstorm or electrical rainstorm, or they want to make sure that the grid wasn’t triggering a fire. But if you have a battery, you you you can still have power. So people started buying more batteries because of the wildfires. So people start seeing all of this and and these 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 a battery source is really coming. Into focus right now.

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S1: Is that because it’s a is that it’s sort of a cheaper, lower footprint way to do it?

S2: It’s the combination, especially for the cost. So if you’re able to both get a a battery that can help power your home as well as a vehicle. You get it all in one package as opposed to, you know, having to buy the lithium ion battery and install that in the garage. You have it all packaged in in in every.

S1: 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 sort of bleeding money by paying the power company.

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S2: Realistically, obviously, 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? And with the federal goals that have been set, the president pushing for, you know, 500,000 vehicle chargers, half the vehicles on the road, he wants to be electric by 2030. Those kinds of shifts in technology are going to require upgrades to the electric grid. And who pays for that? But the consumers of those who are on the grid. Conversely, the other side of the argument is that rooftop solar is a form of energy efficiency. It takes a load off the grid. It helps to reduce the need to build more big box power plants, more transmission lines, and then the excess electricity that a rooftop solar homeowner has or business, you know, 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 electrons not going to Las Vegas, that bad electron is going to the neighborhood where that electron has been produced. And so there’s a benefit to a person’s neighbor for for the person who built a power plant on their rooftop.

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S1: And if you go off grid, you’re no longer benefiting your neighbor that way, right?

S2: Well, not directly. But then, you know, there become the related benefits of your neighbor has power. In the case of Hurricane Ida, you had a homeowner who who had solar and batteries and was able to provide charging for people’s phones. And so, I mean, there’s the energy version of Can I borrow a cup of sugar? So you get that benefit from your neighbor as well.

S1: I guess, 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 you’re if your power goes out, you can’t just call the electric company. You’re on your own. Is that is that a big problem for people who’ve gone off grid?

S2: You are on your own. And and that’s a significant consideration. But because a lot of these folks have they have planned out what it is that they’re doing. Several of them have just said, you know, I never lose power. It’s not a problem for me. They admit, you know, I’m a little 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.

S1: When we come back, the utility companies and the off the grid folks both think they found the best way to address climate change. But can they both be right? 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. And then they delayed that vote indefinitely. And it’s still up in the air. Can you walk me through the debate around that vote? Because you wrote in your piece that both sides of the debate consider themselves proponents of renewable energy.

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S2: The effort by the California regulators was to say, you know, 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 we’re well over a million rooftops in California that have rooftop solar. The question was, well, what is the appropriate amount of compensation that they receive when they send their excess power that their solar generates to the grid? And how do they pay their fair share if if they remain connected to the grid? They’re not grid defectors because there are all the other services and and components to the grid that if they’re connected, shouldn’t they pay something? On the other side is the utility scale, because 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 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 then that benefits larger numbers of people at lower cost.

S1: One way of looking at it is that the power companies are basically trying to hold on to customers by lobbying the state to impose fines on people who want to go off grid. Is that a fair way of viewing it?

S2: And 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, well, 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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S1: 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 at this point, to some extent, shaping what the cost of electricity will be for everybody else. But I wondered 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? Ivan rejected those kinds of binaries. He thinks there will always be a need for someone to oversee how energy flows.

S2: In the short term, you’re not going to have everybody off the grid. So there’s a role for an evolving role for the utility to play in managing electrons. The evolution of how we power our lives, you know, 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 electric grid, as well as each of those apartments has its own backup battery if the grid goes down. It’s just a wide range of possibilities for where energy is going, both as for individuals as well as for everyone collectively. It’s not so much the elimination of of any particular one, but the possibilities that it all creates.

S1: Ivan Penn, thanks so much for being with us.

S2: It was a pleasure.

S1: Ivan Penn is the renewable energy correspondent for The New York Times. That’s it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brookes, edited by Tori Bosch. Alisha Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger what next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Lizzie will be back next week. I’m Seth Stevenson. Thanks for listening.