Sunday, January 12, 2014

Living off the Grid - An Exercise in Logic

I admit to being attracted to the notion of living off the grid - separated from the utility networks, living off the land (sort of), and being more secluded than typical city dwellers. Personally I like seclusion, so that's the biggest draw for me. But as I've looked into it, I've noticed a few arguments for living off the grid that sound good at first, but after some thinking may not be altogether accurate.

The first argument is that it is more environmentally friendly to live off the grid. If you are not on the power 'net, then of course the power generation goes down by whatever you consumed. But is the reduction in power usage due to one household going to make an appreciable difference? Frankly I doubt it, especially if the power plant is designed to provide power to, say, 50,000 households. In fact, the power plant will not reduce the amount of energy it produces. What will happen is, if the plant makes more than is needed, the power will be sold to other companies that don't produce enough power (I'm looking at you, California). So the marginal change in power usage is very small. But not zero, and the amount of reduction would become quite meaningful if, say, 1,000 households left the greed. I'll come back to that point in a minute.

Now, what about generating your own power off the grid? This is done through a combination of wind and solar power, neither of which generate carbon as part of the energy generation process. However, the rigs to transfer energy from solar panels & windmills to batteries look pretty complex, and those have to be manufactured. So certainly there is some pollution resulting from the manufacturing of these products. Furthermore, such power generating rigs take up more space per household than do commercial power plants.

So I would argue the environmental impact per household is small, but I don't know in which direction it goes. That would take a fair bit of research and would be based on individual households power usage & how it is supplied. I'm just raising the point that it's not a clear-cut reduction. It could go either way on an individual basis.

On a large-scale basis, I think the story changes and it's because of efficiency & space arguments. If thousands of households go off the grid, they are all going to need individual power stations which will take up space. This is very inefficient, and producing all these power rigs may well generate more pollution than the marginal reduction in power generation, although it would be more concentrated rather than spread out over time.

In this post, I simply wanted to raise a concern about the environmental impact of living off the grid. In my next post, I'll be thinking about off-grid living on a large-scale basis especially as it impacts the amount of space required per person. I plan to show, logically, that off-grid living for a large number of people would necessitate a significant reduction in population. That is to say, the only way the world can support 7+ billion people is through technological efficiency, i.e. on-grid living.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your thinking here. People living off the grid would generate power (and heat) through less environmentally friendly ways than your local power company.

    They key to maximizing your efficiency is live in a very moderate climate area like California. Your power needs would be much less in Cali than in freezing cold Minnesota!