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.