Failing to live Off-Grid

SUBHEAD: Darth Vader invites Luke to "Come to the Dark Side". It's hard serving the power.

By Juan Wilson on 3 January 2016 Island Breath -

Image above: When Luke finds that his father is Darth Vader he is asked to join the Dark Side". From (

Luke Evslin has been writing a blog Ka Wae since January of 2011.  Because of his interesting perspective on issues we have had a link to that site on the Island Breath front page. Other bloggers weve linked to over the years have been James Kunstler, John Michael Greer, Charles Hugh Smith, and Dmitry Orlov.

Luke has written three excellent articles on events in Syria. Start with Thoughts on Syria.

His latest article is dated 22 December 2015 titled Thank You. It's kind of a "Goodbye piece". That article describes some of Luke's recent writing successes with Civil Beat and stepping away from the blog.

One of those writing "successes" he mentions is a cover article for the KIUC magazine Currents titled "Why I Live Off-Grid" (Also see it below). I was really surprised KIUC would publish such an article - until I read it.

In his "Thank You" article Luke states he was asked to write the piece by KIUC. The last line of the story is"
"I’m desperate to get on the grid, and will never forget the value of that electricity."
After reading "Why I Live Off-Grid" I decided to take the link to Luke's blog off Island Breath.

It's a Big Adjustment
Moving off the KIUC grid is a big adjustment. And as Luke found out it requires a lot more photo-voltaic resources and storage capacity than one might initially think.

It has taken my wife, Linda, and  I ten years to settle into a system that can get us through the day/night and, just as dramatically the summer/winter cycles. 

I won't go through the whole history here, but we started with a 60 watt panel and a small deep-cycle battery and found it inadequate for much more than lighting a fluorescent bulb. Forget about running a computer or under-counter refrigerator.

After ten years we have evolved a group of individual systems for doing all our electrical tasks. There are seven systems in all.
  1. One, with 150watts of PV panel and 4 large deep-cycle lead-acid marine batteries and  provides lighting and a radio for a guest room. 
  2. A  similar system provides master bedroom and bathroom lighting.
  3. Another similar system provides garage/utility room lighting.
  4. A 300 watt PV system with 3 sealed AGM deep-cycle sealed batteries provides kitchen counter and 2nd bathroom lighting.
  5. Another 300 watt PV panel feeds 6 large deep-cycle lead-acid marine batteries to support our wireless system (and during daylight) my desktop computer.
  6. A 1,500 watt PV array with eighth 400 amphour 6 volt batteries for the refrigerator and freezer.
  7. Another 1,500 watt PV array with eighth 400 amphour 6 volt batteries is attached to our electric panel box with a what looks like the same OutBack inverter controller system pictured in Luke's KIUC article. All it does is run the outlets and switched lighting built into the house.
Once I had all these systems running, I called KIUC to come and take their meter and the line that came down my long driveway. The gal on the phone asked me if I was taking down my house, and I told her "No, I was taking down KIUC. 

It's like Sailing a Boat
Even with all these systems charged and running, we live on a tight electrical budget. We don't use our microwave for anything but as a breadbox and storing bags of chips.

We only vacuum, or use heavy power consuming tools (like my table saw) when the sun is shining. We schedule the washing machine and dryer for midday use when the main system battery voltage reads at least 26.5 volts.

We schedule using our entertainment systems and computer systems. At night we can afford to watch two Netfix or Amazon shows or spend that time on the computer surfing the web and listening to music. 

We cannot do all these things together or at any time we want. And we are getting used to it. It's kind of like sailing a boat. A magical thing that requires vigilance at all times.

One thing I can say is that Linda and I have become very aware of the cycle of the day and the year. The winter solstice has never had quite the same meaning to me as it does now.

Besides building multiple systems for providing power we are trying to do the same thing for water, cooking and food sources.

It's Full Time Job
One I wouldn't trade. Even though I usually get up at 3:00am to check the main house system and refrigeration system. The refrigeration is the 800 pound gorilla. In the middle of the night I check to make sure if I need to that I can transfer the refrigerator over to the house system if need be. In the winter that happens once or twice a week. It's either do that; turn off the fridge or freezer, or damage $2,500 worth of battery array. Last winter I had to let some frozen food go.

I know that in time my PV panels will fail. Some may succumb to flying debris in a storm. I'm sure the main inverter will fry some day and the 110v outlets in the house go cold. That day I probably won't be willing or able to replace it to restore "normal".

I suspect that these systems, as they fail, will be just a transfer from a life in the industrial world to something like the life Hawaiians lived here four-hundred years ago. We have to make some adjustments to get there and I'm hoping for a smooth ride down.

Any, Luke, if you see this, know I admire your effort. It's a bigger effort and more exspensive than you may want to invest but it tells you the real nature of what we as Americans consume beyond our daily share of sunlight and rain.

Why I Live Off-Grid

By Luke Evslin on 22 December 2015 for KIUC Currents -

Image above: From ().

If you are young, idealistic and stuck in a hospital bed recovering from a near-death experience, stay away from the writings of Henry David Thoreau. He said:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
After a lifetime of consumerism, the writings of a 19th-century philosopher convinced me to go off grid. The distant misty peaks of Makaleha would be my Walden.

I lay in bed, immobilized by a severe back injury, yet dreaming of the day I could stand and cut the cord on civilization. I wanted to suck out all the marrow of life while saving money and reducing my carbon footprint. What better way than going off grid?

Utility-scale energy is complicated: spinning reserves, frequency, naphtha, diesel, ratepaying, amperage, voltage and anthropogenic climate change. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it all.

But I can understand off grid. Just six solar panels and four batteries. I could count the components on my two hands, and it was within my price range. And then no more utility bills. It was perfect.

And I was delusional.

As soon as I left the hospital bed, I built a water catchment tank, installed six 250-watt photovoltaic panels and enclosed my wife, Sokchea, and I in a bubble of self-righteousness.

It has now been four years. Our water still comes from clouds and our electricity from the sun.

But that bubble of idealism burst long, long ago.

Eating dirt in second grade

A few days of overcast weather turns the romance of finite electricity into the reality of spoiled food, cold showers and kerosene lanterns. It is not like saying, “No thanks, I have my own bags” at the grocery store or remembering to take your Hydroflask when you leave the house.

Living off grid has affected every aspect of our lives.

The last time I had a friend over for dinner he said, “Brah, I can’t believe you live like this.”

I’m not sure if he was referring to the single LED bulb that we use at night, our mossy-tasting water or the ammonia emanating from the compost heap, but we took the hint that our rejection of infinite electricity and municipal water had brought us down a few notches on the social ladder.

I think about that one time in second grade when I told everyone I was going to eat dirt at recess. There was a thrill of exhilaration as a crowd formed around me.

“Wow, they’re all watching me,” I thought with excitement as I raised the first handful of dirt to my lips. “This is the greatest moment of my life ...”

Yet, as the moist soil passed through my mouth, so did that fleeting moment of glory. All of my classmates ran laughing, leaving me stuck to contemplate my own idiocy with a mouthful of dirt.

While my off-grid self-righteousness to shield me from the genuine concern of my friends regarding my sanity, even that has faded in the stark realization of the futility of our endeavor.

Truly going off grid is just as impossible for our modern palate to digest as dirt in the schoolyard.  

Boiling water a challenge

Speaking of dirt, right now I am drinking an organic Rainforest blend coffee that was compiled from so many Third World sources that no country of origin is listed on the label.

If I were better at selling this lifestyle, I would say that my foreign dictatorship-sourced coffee was brewed from the falling drops of condensation on the slopes of a majestic Hawaiian rainforest.

But I know better.

Most of the time my rainwater is only brewing mosquito larva and the bacteria that specialize in decomposing the anole lizards that find their unfortunate end in my tank. Yet even the disconcerting amount of microscopic life in my untreated water is overshadowed by the sheer volume of PVC and polyethylene that make up my harvesting system—those industrial plastics shown to cause neurological disorders.

Despite all of that, boiling the water is actually the hardest part of my morning coffee routine.

The last time I used an electric kettle I drained my batteries so quickly I had to spend half a day without electricity.

Now I use propane sourced from hydraulic fracturing on the East Coast, which has been linked to massive methane releases, seismic activity, dislodging of radioactive material and, most commonly, groundwater contamination by the chemicals used in the process.

Yes, this is what I call off grid.

Did I already mention my own extreme idiocy? In this case, hypocrisy is the better word.

Right now, as the sun approaches its zenith, our solar panels (made in Singapore) are bringing in about one-kilowatt of electricity. However, because our batteries (made in China) are currently full and my iMac (made in China), desk fan (made in China) and refrigerator (yes, made in the USA!) are only using about 200 combined watts, that means our charge controller is shunting somewhere around 800 continuous watts of electricity.

Only 20 percent of the electricity being generated by my system is being used, and instead of diverting the unused electrons back onto the grid like they would be in a grid-tied system, I am wasting most of my power production.

Gas generator is backup

Even worse, while we minimize our power use as much as possible on winter days, I often have to run our gasoline generator in the evening just to have enough power to run our small refrigerator through the night.While part of our motivation to go off grid was to minimize our contribution to climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, I am actually doing the opposite.

If my power consumption was the same, yet I was grid tied, I would have a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

Using the grid as a backup is more efficient than a portable generator. Instead of only using a small portion of my mid-day electricity, all of the electrons produced in our system would be sold back to the grid to be used by my neighbors.

By increasing the voltage of our islandwide grid, our small photovoltaic contribution ultimately would reduce the demand for KIUC’s naphtha- and diesel-burning generators.

Do I regret going off grid? No. Just like picking the dirt out of my teeth taught me the value of humility, going off grid has taught me the value of electricity.

No laundry after 4 p.m.

During the day when the sun is shining, I have a bumper crop of available electrons. Yet at night, when we are running exclusively off of our battery bank, every watt that flows into our home is extremely valuable.

We never have more than two lights on at a time. We cannot wash our clothes after 4 p.m. We cannot watch TV at night.

It only takes a few refrigerator loads of spoiled food before electricity becomes the most important resource in your household.

It just takes one $2,000 set of spoiled and sulfuric acid batteries before you learn not to let them discharge all the way.

While I no longer am self-righteous about our off-grid lifestyle, and I harbor no false illusions about my impact being less than others, the lesson of finite electricity has been one of the most valuable of my life.

As we transition to an island of 100 percent renewable energy, much of it based off photovoltaic technology, nighttime electricity will become progressively more valuable.

I’m desperate to get on the grid, and will never forget the value of that electricity.



Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this piece and my others on Syria. I know that you value sustainability, energy independence, and reducing carbon emissions-- so I'm surprised that you disagree with my premise.

1) As I explained in the piece, as long as our panels are shunting electricity when the batteries are full (which happens every sunny day)-- that is essentially a waste of valuable resources that would be better off being fed into the grid.

2) As long as we ever have to turn on the generator, that is vastly more inefficient from a fuel consumption and carbon emissions standpoint then using the grid as a back-up. The only way to create a system where you don't have to turn on the generator is to vastly over-size it. If my system were to fulfill 100% of my daily needs on a cloudy winter day, then I'm fulfilling more than 200% of my daily needs on a sunny summer say. Solar panels take plenty of fossil fuels and rare metals to produce-- oversizing an off-grid system is an egregious waste of those resources.

3) If Kaua'i has any hope of getting to 100% renewable (which KIUC seems to be quickly getting us too), than it need to be done as a community effort. Imagine the resources that it would take for all of Kaua'i to be "off-grid."
a) We would need vastly more solar panels, because we wouldn't be maximizing their efficiency either in location or use.
b) We'll all be using gasoline generators on cloudy days, instead of utility scale renewable solutions such as pumped hydro or biomass. Even NAPTHA and Diesel at utility scale are vastly better than a household generator.
c) Those who can't afford the upfront costs of solar panels, an inverter, and a battery bank will be out of luck. The more customers that defect from KIUC the smaller the number of people there are to carry the financial burden of grid overhead, and the higher that rates have to correspondingly rise. Meaning, by going off-grid (or even over sizing a household PV system) we are placing a higher financial burden on those who can't afford solar. This is an equitable conundrum that has to be addressed in the current model, but it's exacerbated when customers leave the utility entirely.

4) I enjoy the slight amount of extra work that it takes to maintain our system and the simplicity of our lives. Even when we eventually get back on the grid, I will never go back to laundry at night or forgetting to turn the lights off-- because I understand the value of electricity. That, which I'm sure you can agree with, is supposed to be the take-away of the article.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to comment. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Juan Wilson said...

Aloha Luke,

Over the last ten years my expectations of what solar PV (with storage) might cost and what one might expect to support has changed drastically.

Also, my expectation of what is necessary on my part to keep it going smoothly was underestimated.

It's not unlike turning away from all other sources of food, but what's growing in your yard. It's a job.

Comments on your points:

1) There is no waste. The Sun is always shining. We just don't see it all the time. Is the Sun wasting energy when we don't see it or need it? If you don't need the energy, just be happy your batteries are topped off to meet the needs of the night.

2) I have no backup generator and don't plan to get one. If we face a night where we can't cruise the web, stream Netfix or play CDs through our 15" Cerwin Vega speakers; we play chess by candle light.

3) Kauai got through the 19th century just fine off the grid. I have no confidence that the comfy middle class on Kauai will plan ahead, put aside resources or reduce life style in order to go off grid as a "community". If KIUC we truly a co-op we might have a sliver of a chance. The fact that they published your article that yearns to get back on the system testifies to that.

3a) This is exactly why we have to downshift on consumption of unlimited energy 24/7/365. It is simply unsustainable.

3b) Naptha, diesel, gasoline imported across the Pacific is not a solution. Even biomass must take a back seat to food independence and security.

3c) If you can afford to make a car payment you can afford to downgrade to a used car (or be rid of the car) and afford a solar system that can store enough battery charge to get you through the night with LED lights to cook, play or read by. In the day there would be enough battery storage to charge battery operated devices for entertainment, and communication. Even lithium battery tools could be charged. However, at the bottom of the PV-storage capability, you would have to forget about refrigeration, wireless 24/7 as well as washing machines, dryers and high power consumption tools like tile cutters and air compressors.

4) You might enjoy the "slight amount of extra work" that it takes to go PV with storage, but I would suggest that a slight amount of cost and work won't "get 'er done". Like food independence, its a major pain in the ass. But the alternatives are worse.

I believe the underlying reason KIUC will fail is not from decisions made in their boardroom, but in the hearts of its customers. It's really nice to have a tanktopped, fully charged Prius and go off to Safeway or Costco for Italian appetizer treats and choice cuts of lamb to be consumed with imported wine while watching Downton Abbey on a 40" flatscreen TV.

Only problem is... it isn't in the cards.

IB Publisher

Unknown said...

Thanks for publishing my original comment. I thought that maybe I'd submitted it wrong when it didn't show up, so I wrote a more in depth response on my blog.

I have a huge amount of respect for your commitment to being off-grid.

1) However, where you say there is no waste because the sun is free-- that's just not correct. The waste is in the energy that is being produced but not used. As long as the planet is not running off of 100% renewable energy, any electron that's being shunted is a waste. As I mentioned before, solar panels take a lot of energy, metal, and waste to create. They need to contribute at their full potential.

It's the same argument for why desalinization running off of solar power is not a solution to California's water crisis. As long as California is not running off of 100% renewable energy, it's a gross waste of energy to use solar power to desalinate water rather than use that energy to get on the grid. However, the continual trade off between electricity and water is something that we will continue to have to face.

2) We turn on our generator probably twelve times a year. But, on a very rainy winter day, we have no choice but to run the generator or else we risk damaging our batteries-- and that is with even very limited use of electricity. Today was somewhat cloudy. I'm hoping to watch a Netflix movie so I'm not doing laundry or running my fan. That is just part of life now, and it's an aspect that I enjoy.

While I hugely admire your ability to go without electricity at all through the night-- I don't think many other people on Kaua'i would be willing to follow your lead, nor do I think that from a food independence perspective that it would be valuable for everyone to let their refrigerators grow warm overnight...

3a) I agree. We need to downshift our consumption. But that should come from market factors such as time of use pricing. During a sunny day the island has plenty of electricity-- and so it should be cheap. At night, our electricity is currently coming from dirty sources-- and it should be expensive. We need a market incentive to all start consuming as if we were off-grid, yet to do it in a communal fashion.

3b) Of course. I agree that fossil fuels are not a solution. But, they are much much better than generators and they are going to be part of our fuel mix on Kaua'i for another 15 or 20 years. The only way to accelerate the adoption of renewable base line energy (pumped storage, utility scale battery, etc) is through the utility. If people began defecting from KIUC en-masse, then we have absolutely no potential of getting to 100% renewable.

And Kaua'i has plenty of fallow ag land. Growing Albezia for a biomass plant is not displacing any local agriculture.

3c) As I said above about refrigeration, it would not increase our food independence to get rid of refrigerators, as food would not last nearly as long. I understand what you're saying about the luxuries of technology, but it's not simply about saving time for convenience. We need to continually look at ways to make us more productive-- especially if we each plan to start growing a substantial portion of our own food. And washing machines are HUGE time savers.

4) I agree entirely with the notion that "a slight amount of cost and work won't 'get 'er done.'"

If KIUC fails, we all fail. Advocating for the downfall of our utility co-op is not a productive solution to our energy crisis.

Thanks for the opportunity to respond.

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