On Grid, Off Grid, and Tesla Batteries

When I was just getting into green building and design (back during the Truman Administration) I felt a personal draw towards creating an off-grid home for myself up in the hills of some south facing cove.

I’ve been reminded of this early inclination lately as we have a new client who wants to build “off the grid”.

When I mentioned my interest in building off the grid to someone with a lot of experience in green building (this was about 20 years ago) he responded in a surprising way. Without judgement and without presuming to answer for me he asked, “Why do you want to do that?”

What I now realize is that INTENTION is super critical to whatever one does in life; green building is no exception!

If my intention was to be energy independent (it was) then there is a big package of issues that need to be unwrapped.

I naively envisioned myself up said holler with a steady supply of clean green solar power, lights blazing through the night, with my off-grid soundtrack booming away. For the record my off-grid soundtrack featured JJ, Johnny, and Bob (Cale, Cash, and Marley, respectively.) Ah, I can still see it (and hear it).

This vision also included my friends, family, and neighbors complementing me on my forward thinking-ness and generosity as they dropped by to take a hot shower, their own pitiably dwellings cold and dark when the grid went down.

As intentions go, being responsible for one’s own energy is admirable if not downright noble; unfortunately this is a particularly pernicious myth, one somehow tied up with the American pioneer spirit.

We’re all entitled to our own stories, our own myths, of course. In my case I never acted on it because another mentor with a lot of experience kindly pointed out the fallacy of independence.

“Where are you going to get your batteries?”
“Do you know how to build a generator for those times when the sun doesn’t shine for days on end?”
“How does one responsibly source refined petroleum products for said generator?”
“Are you going to grow all your own food?”

And so on and so on.

Point being, independence, while understandable, is just not likely to happen.

What is likely to happen is “Interdependence” (in fact it already has and always will).

An interdependent view of energy and community is a somehow more compelling vision. This allows one to think of the grid as a living, breathing, multifaceted web of connectivity. No sun today, how about sharing your neighbors wind power. No wind or sun? Perhaps that centralized natural gas power plant should be fired up for a few days.

This brings us to today’s grid tied decentralized pv systems. Autonomy is lessened but the connections we all have are acknowledged and dealt with. While it’s not the total answer these systems definitely move us closer to resilient interdependence.

By the way, I hear there are grid tied systems that do provide some energy (without batteries) when the grid is down and the sun is shining.

All of this is not to say that off the grid is to be avoided as some sort of unsustainable myth-making. It all comes back to INTENTION!

My new clients have expressed a much different intention for being off the gird. They have suggested a very real concern with the moral implications of being connected to a system they see as immoral, unjust, and unsustainable. This is another matter altogether.

If these fine folks accept the fact that they’re not becoming independent but rather acting on their deeply felt values then the prospects for success are much stronger.

We’ve all heard the moral case against centralized fossil fuel energy production and distribution (see Pope Francis Encyclia, among others). I once thought the list was overly complete with climate change, mountain top removal, air pollution, water pollution, and massive inefficiency (and it was) but we’ve been reminded lately of another addition to the list in coal ash.

The hits just keep coming!

Does anyone doubt the ridiculousness of this Victorian technology in the digital age? (Thanks to Amory Lovins for that deadly accurate description.)

Which brings us to the latest technological wild card, the Tesla Powerwall battery. While I am cautiously optimistic that this will live up to the promise I am first and foremost cautious. Can one man really jam a stick in the spokes of such a influential and massive industrialized system? Seems a tall order to be sure.

But if it works………………

If you can purchase a super efficient, low fuss, no mess 7 kilo-watt lithium ion battery (as opposed to an expensive, finicky, dirty flooded lead acid battery) for a cost similar to connecting to the grid the question will no doubt present, “Why would you (connect to the grid)?”

So while my crystal ball is cracked and hazy it does suggest some big changes coming to the grid.

What doesn’t change is the importance of INTENTION in all matters energetic and environmental. We’ll still need values to guide our energy decisions and where we place focus and resources.

Steve Farrell