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The Author Speaks

Goodbye Electric Company, Hello Independence

Interview with Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for ... True Independence in Modern America."

off the grid

— Courtesy of Penguin Books

Q. Besides this "conventional" off-grid lifestyle, there are other ways of doing it you write about in your book.

A. There are hippie back-to-the-landers who started doing it in the '70s and never stopped. There are some people who were never on the grid—backwoods people, good ol' boys. There are people who for one reason or another found they couldn't make it in cities living in conventional ways. Maybe they'd lost jobs, or their homes were foreclosed on.

Q. You write about some people who don't fall into those categories.

A. These are people who do it because they've essentially lost faith in the structure of modern America. Some of them are successful people who could easily afford to live a normal life in the city. They're not totally separated from the system, but they essentially feel they can't trust the government anymore, or the stability of the modern world. Many have a survivalist bent.

Q. Some of these people believe the modern world is about to come to a bad end sooner rather than later.

A. It's fair to say a lot of people who live off the grid—certainly not all of them—believe in conspiracies of one kind or another. There's a continuum that goes from left-wing enviros to right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Q. You promote off-grid living primarily as a lifestyle choice rather than a political or environmental stance. Yet you seem sort of angry at the system.

A. I don't look at going off the grid as a purist. It's a practical thing, not a religion or a game. But I do think the grid was built to serve the interests of the electric company rather than consumers. Perhaps it made sense when it was conceived of in the late 1920s. But the way it has played out has not helped the American consumer.

Q. Why is that?

A. It is very inefficient in the way it loses power that is transmitted over long distances. It also encourages inefficient consumption. For the first few years that Thomas Edison sold lighting to customers in Manhattan, he charged per light. When he invented the electric meter, he switched to selling electricity itself, and he no longer had any incentive to look for energy efficiency.

Q. You charge that in addition to electric light, which people really desired, electric companies strove to seduce people into buying electric devices they didn't really want.

A. They fostered the view that the proper American home has a lot of electrical devices in it. The desire was implanted by advertising and marketing, and even by influencing the content of children's textbooks.

Q. Granted the grid has problems, but won't the emerging technology of the smart grid solve things, efficiency-wise?

A. It looks like the same mistakes are being repeated—doing things for the benefit of the utilities rather than the people. We know the grid needs improvement to prevent energy loss. But the utilities' focus now is installing smart meters throughout the United States, giving them more pricing control. Is this the right way to spend money when the price of solar panels will drop by half in five years?

Q. Do we need the national electric grid at all?

A. Technology has moved on. If the grid didn't exist, we would not need it any longer. We can now get energy and water much more locally. We could have distributed energy systems, still interconnected to a degree, but controlled on a much more local level for local benefit.

Q. Are you off the grid as we speak?

A. Partly. I'm in my place in Sussex, in southeast England, overlooking a little churchyard in a railcar converted for living. It has an electrical connection, but that's all for utilities. I have a place in Spain on the island of Majorca that's completely off-grid.

Q. Sounds expensive.

A. Not at all. It's where I first got interested in off-grid living—in the village of Deia on Majorca. It's this very beautiful, very expensive village. Supermodels vacation there; Richard Branson has an estate there. I decided I wanted a place there. Of course I couldn't afford it.

Q. Not paying an electric bill made up the difference?

A. I realized I could get a shepherd's hut and solar panel and collect rainwater. It's got the typical Mediterranean olive groves built by the Moors. The harvest goes to the local olive oil cooperative. I had my million-dollar view down to the sea and it only cost $7,000. That was 15 years ago, and I've been improving it in various ways ever since.

Chris Carroll lives in Maryland.

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