Among the modern advances that make our lives longer, safer and easier than those of our distant ancestors, public utilities—abundant electrical and gas power, and clean water—surely rank near the top.
On the other hand, in this age of growing discontent with big business and big government—and what looks to many people like back-scratching between them to the detriment of regular folks—few things tie us to the "bigs" more irrevocably than our water and light bills.
Or do they?
In his new book, Off the Grid, journalist and documentary filmmaker Nick Rosen lays out the argument that you can live a comfortable life off the grid—or "off-grid," as the phrase appears in his native England. The term has a double meaning: Physical disconnect from public utilities is certainly one of them, but it also implies a willful turning away from the increasingly complex—and according to Rosen, increasingly nonsensical—structure of modern society.
Some of the characters Rosen writes about were forced into off-grid life by dire financial straits. Most of them, however, are firmly middle class and made the choice of their own free will. Some of them are positively wealthy. And most are older.
Rosen isn't advocating a paleolithic lifestyle or arguing that electric power and treated water are not excellent to have. In fact, it's the advance of modern technology like solar power that makes off-grid homes that don't sacrifice convenience and comfort possible. True, such lifestyles require extra planning and constant attention to conserving energy. But ultimately, big utilities—and the grid itself—are now unnecessary, Rosen argues. The payoff, he says, will be greater independence, a lower cost of living and smaller environmental footprints.
Rosen, who lives off-grid himself part of the time and advocates the lifestyle through his website, spoke recently with the AARP Bulletin about the advantages of pulling the plug on the utilities.
Q. Who is going off-grid?
A. I was very surprised as I became involved with the off-grid movement and became something of an evangelist for it. I assumed it would be a youth movement like in the '70s. In fact, 70 percent of the people using my website are over 50 years old.
Q. Why do you think that is?
A. People go through life and realize more possessions and bigger, more expensive houses don't mean more happiness. I think about my off-grid experience: Come home, light some candles, make a fire, cook a meal. It's a much simpler, more spiritual life. It's not a race to see who can have the most impressive off-grid setup. It's something to make life happier.
Q. But I have to ask: If I go off grid, can I keep my house air-conditioned? It's horrible in Baltimore today. It doesn't get like this in Great Britain.
A. I've lived in the United States, so I know how it can be. Unfortunately, completely air-conditioning an American house off-grid would be very expensive and inefficient.
Q. So I must resign myself to sweat?
A. Not necessarily. It would be possible to cool one room as a retreat. And there are ways to manipulate architecture to make a house more comfortable—orient it to catch breezes, design the interior to promote air flow, point the windows to catch sun in the early morning instead of later. The building materials you choose can help.
Q. People made do in the past.
A. They did, and now we have modern methods like solar electric. I sometimes call living off the grid a combination of ancient wisdom and new technology.
Q. And with that combo, you live a comfortable, modern life?
A. Yes, one kind of off-grid life is completely modern. There are certain compromises you need to make. You can't run the washing machine if you're running some other device that uses a lot of electricity. You need to monitor power consumption. But otherwise you live an absolutely conventional life off-grid.
Q. How much does that kind of life cost?
A. Right now, the entry cost would be about $150,000. That won't last. Solar panels, for instance, are becoming cheaper and cheaper as manufacturing becomes more efficient. Water purification will become more economical. And remember, once you've paid that entry cost, you don't pay utility bills anymore.
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.