Lentis/Life Off the Grid

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Introduction[edit]

The grid refers to the commercial or government infrastructure that aids societal existence.[1] People adopt this lifestyle for a variety of reasons including sustainability, independence and government mistrust, but the degree to which they flee the grid is variable.[2] People can live independent of many or all grids, and the extent to which they are independent varies. In the United States alone, there are approximately 180,000 people living grid independent by choice[1]; however, people are also born into off-grid life. Worldwide, there are over 1 billion people living off the electric grid due to poverty or poor electric technologies.[3] Such people live in complete absence of electrical connection to the grid, yet there are even more people that require off grid technologies to compensate for unreliable grid performance. In the following chapter, we intend to discuss the philosophy, technological requirements and societal implications of off grid life. 

Types of Grids[edit]

Electric

Water

Supermarket

Telecommunications

Banking

Relevant Technologies[edit]

Electric Grid Compensatory Systems[edit]

Four main technologies are utilized to create off grid power: solar voltaic, microhydro, wind and diesel generator systems. [4] Solar systems use photovoltaic cells (solar panels) to convert light into DC electricity. The main components of a solar energy system are solar panels (PV cells), a controller, an inverter (to transform DC to AC electricity) and batteries for electricity storage.[5] The size of a solar electric system depends on electric consumption. The typical solar electric system produces 5 kW of electricity and costs around $11,060 after tax credits, but solar systems can be rendered useless in the event of snow coverage and other weather disrupting the system.[6] Micro-hydro systems use running water to create electricity. The major components of a micro-hydro system include pipeline (to direct the water), turbine, alternator and a regulator (to control energy output).[7] These systems are most viable in areas with a large water flow and a large drop in vertical distance.[8] Costs for a micro-hydro system vary but usually range from 1050- 7650 USD/kW.[9] A typical home could run completely on a 10 kW system.[7] Wind power is a renewable energy system that converts wind into electricity. The main components of a wind system are a turbine, a tower and a controller.[10] The average wind energy system costs between 5,760 USD/kW.[11] There are also local ordinances and permitting issues that affect the viability of this system. The major limitation of wind based systems is the effect of terrain and topography on the wind in the area.[11] Gas generators work by converting chemical energy (fuel) into electricity. These systems can be small and portable or power an entire home. Typical cost for a generator that can power an entire home ranges between $10,000 and $20,000.[12] This type of system is less environmentally friendly and usually used in the event of failure of other systems. 

Water[edit]

Common water collection systems include rainwater harvesting and wells.[13] Often the roof of a house is used as a collection area. The water will run off of the roof and into downspouts that fill a collection system, typically a cistern. The tank should be checked periodically to ensure proper sanitation. Privately owned wells are also used for off grid water harvesting. Creation of the well involves digging, driving or drilling through the ground to connect to an aquifer or groundwater source.[14] The main concern for wells tends to be sanitation. Wells can be contaminated by septic tanks, livestock and runoff. As a result they should be placed where rainwater flows away from the well. Both of these systems can be attached to an electric pump in order to provide a dwelling with running water. 

Supermarket[edit]

The three main technologies people use to stay off the supermarket grid are aquaponics, permaculture gardening and greenhouses. Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (the soil-less growing of plants) that grows fish and plants together in one integrated system. The fish waste provides an organic food source for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish [15]. Permaculture gardening is the most basic form of gardening. It refers to farming indigenous plants outdoors.[16] As a result, gardeners are limited to local or well adapted plants for farming. Greenhouses are glass structures that can grow a variety of plants. These structures allow gardening of plants that may die in the natural environment.[17] With this technology, a person off the grid can have access to multiple food sources otherwise unavailable due to climate. 

Participants and Methodologies[edit]

Since many people live off the grid for a variety of reasons, it is both useful and efficient to categorize them into several groups. While groups other than those listed here do exist, these have been selected for more in-depth analysis due to their prevalence and wide similarities within each group.

The Religious[edit]

Some groups of people choose to remove themselves from the grids as a part of their religious beliefs. One such group is the Mennonites of Lancaster County. Also known as the Amish, these people live a primarily agricultural lifestyle in small, tight-knit communities. While there are some differences between towns and denominations, most Amish hold to the ground rule of no phones, lights, or motor cars. This is due to a strict and literal interpretation of the Christian Bible. They believe that worldliness distances themselves from God, and thus strive to separate themselves from the "things of the world"[18]. Though they do live off the power, media, water, and supermarket grid, they are not separated from society completely. The Amish maintain friendly relations with their modernized neighbors, and will, on occasion, take a horse and buggy into towns to sell handcrafted goods. They also will tolerate curious tourists, so long as the outsiders agree to be non-disruptive during their visit.

Since their belief involves abstaining from certain technologies, rather than working around them, the Amish have no need to supplement their lifestyle with techniques that obviate a grid while still supplying the service. Instead of electricity, they use candles and manual labor. Water is drawn from wells, and food is grown locally. Vehicles are unnecessary entirely, except for the rare occasion where a long distance journey is provided by a horse and buggy.

The Poor[edit]

In many cases, living off the grid is not a choice, but a lifestyle forced upon people by poverty or location. In places of extreme poverty, it is often up to the individual to supply things for themselves or go without. In some cases, it is the result of living in an area not covered by the grids. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh many residents have no access to any electric grid; so they resort to kerosene-burning lamps instead[19]. Water is also a premium in poorer and less-developed regions, where residents may walk miles to bucket up water for washing and drinking from a single clean source.

The Recluses[edit]

There also those for whom the act of living off the grid is merely a side effect of trying to life in secrecy. This includes people who are particularly paranoid, reclusive, or are wanted for criminal reasons. One such person was Hirō "Hiroo" Onoda, a Japanese soldier who (after being deployed to the Philippines) continued to fight WWII against locals and tourists for nearly thirty years.[20] Another such person was Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. While Kaczynski's motives for self-sustained living and isolation were originally environmental in nature, their purpose shifted after he began his criminal activities.

Economic Implications[edit]

When examining the economic impact of going off the grid, study of the power grid specifically is worthwhile because solar panels have enabled an increasing number of people to abandon the grid, and many of the principles governing the economic impact of departure from the power grid can be generalized to other grids. A primary concern regarding people opting to depart from the power grid comes from electrical companies. They warn that large scale defection from the grid will result in poorer service quality for those who remain on the grid due to large revenue losses[21]. This warning indicates that companies would much rather forego their quality of service in response to their shrinking market rather than lowering prices to match the reduction in demand.

In Australia, electrical companies face the challenge of convincing customers to remain on the grid despite being more economically viable. However, economic viability is not always a primary concern for people who choose to go off the grid given the increasing desire of people to gain independence and reduce their ecological footprint, and electrical companies have not made a strong push towards using sustainable energy sources[22]. Conversely, economists have also predicted the outcome of everyone installing solar panels yet remaining bound to the grid. Current solar panel and energy storage technologies are ultimately insufficient for society to function completely independently of fossil fuels at night when solar energy is unavailable[23].

Electrical companies face a predicament where they are trying to convince their consumer base to stay because of network effects that make their service cheaper under heavier use [24]. Frustration consequently arises when the companies feel that consumers are being selfish opting for independence. There is no clear solution to how companies should resolve this disconnect with consumers, but as people continue to leave the grid, prices for customers who stay continue to rise and service quality deteriorates due to network effects. Paying more for less provides further incentive for more customers to generate power independently.

Case Studies[edit]

Many people do not live off the grid by choice, but rather due to lack of reliable grid access. Sub Saharan Africa largely lacks access to reliable power, but several companies are seeking to change this through the use of small scale solar systems.[19] These small scale systems can power 2 LED lights, a radio and power a phone. They are also relatively cheap (~$150), and can be paid off on a pay-as-you-go basis. The access to powered lighting helps increase air quality indoors by stopping the emission of ash in the air by kerosene lamps. Additionally, due to the ability to charge phones and power a radio, this type of power has been influential on the facilitation communication in sub-Saharan Africa. Companies, such as M-Kopa, say that the next step is a system that can power refrigerators and air conditioning systems.

In Bangladesh, only about 42% of the total population, and 31% of the rural population, is connected to the electricity grid. As a result, many rural homes depend on kerosene lamps for lighting. In this particular study solar home systems (SHS) were implemented into a number of rural households in Bangladesh. SHS were found to be expensive up front, but generated more energy at a much lower environmental cost[25]. This study is particularly interesting because it aims for rural households in Bangladesh to achieve the same level of self-sustaining power that some people in nations with fully developed electrical grid systems are now seeking. While developing countries like Bangladesh are using these as an intermediate to a full grid network, some people in developed nations view this self-sustainability as a goal beyond a full grid network. It is unknown whether these developing nations ultimately decide to pursue the development of a full grid in response to trends in developed countries.

Conclusions[edit]

People live off the grid for a variety of reasons, including freedom, independence, privacy and lack of grid access or quality. Many others choose to live off the grid for environmental reasons. Surprisingly, if the world population has more access to energy, carbon emissions will decrease.[26] Technology has the power to increase quality of life, and on grid systems are generally preferable for maximum ease of use. However, if one chooses to convert to an off grid system, several compensatory technologies are required in order to maintain this quality of life. More generally, systems often improve quality of life; but, in order to live free of the system, one must be willing to sacrifice time and energy.

References[edit]

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