The bankers are saying that off-grid living is now so viable that it threatens the whole utilities model. Nick Rosen, editor of off-grid.net, argues that it can’t happen a minute too soon.
It’s official. Off-grid energy is moving from the eco-fringe to mainstream. Last month US investment bank Morgan Stanley announced that the off-grid era had arrived: falling prices for renewable energy equipment and rising prices for energy supplied by power companies are fundamentally altering the business model of the trillion-dollar electricity industry.
A key piece of the jigsaw came in another statement last month: Tesla Motors are now committing to a huge increase in battery production, bringing down the cost of energy storage capacity by over 50%. The power grid is like a giant battery and up to £500 per year of our energy bills is paying for the maintenance of that battery. Morgan Stanley calculates that Tesla’s batteries will only cost an off-grid household £350 per year, rendering the Utility company business model obsolete. “Our analysis suggests utility customers may be positioned to eliminate their use of the power grid,” says the Morgan Stanley report, Clean Tech, Utilities and Autos. “We expect Tesla’s batteries to be cost competitive with the grid in many states, and think investors generally do not appreciate the potential size of the market.”
It’s a moment that the off-grid movement has been waiting for. Back in 2007 I set off around Britain in a camper van to meet the people who were living this way, and wrote a book about it called How to Live Off-Grid. I visited deep green protesters in Devon and inner-city unemployed near Sheffield – but the most interesting communities were in Scotland and Wales where slightly different laws and a greater tolerance of social experiments has spawned a handful of a success stories.
Then the main motivations for living off grid were ideological: either ecological, taking personal responsibility for reducing carbon and water; or alternatively a weariness with consumerism, a desire to spend less and consequently a need to earn less.
But the following year came the banking crash, and interest in off-grid living grew sharply, although the motivations had shifted. Then, and still now, there was a feeling that one might have to look after oneself, that the State and politicians could no longer be trusted with our welfare in the event of social or economic or environmental collapse. Separately, the numbers who were going off-grid because there was simply no other affordable option also increased. In 2010 I repeated the same exercise in America where conditions are far more favourable for off-grid living.
My books inspired thousands to try the off-grid life for themselves. Because of the planning obstacles already mentioned, the fastest growing segment of the British off-grid community are living on urban canals and rivers. In London, where I once wrote about a couple of dozen narrow boats moored in Springfield Park Hackney, there are now hundreds, perhaps thousands along the Lea Valley and all the way into Broadway Market in South Hackney, where the live-aboard owners run bookshops and cafes to cater to the landlubbers who flock to the area. Many are attracted to the low-cost way of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
“You’d be surprised how many people are living well in London with no money,” said George, who kindly let the Guardian photograph me on his well-maintained narrow boat. George looked about 23, clean-cut and studious. He made his money, he said, repairing bicycles. His main expense was diesel fuel which he buys from passing tender boats. He has a couple of dozen moorings he uses as he shifts about the waterways on his “continuous cruiser” license.
Another long-time resident of the moorings around Springfield Park, Jim Lynch, said “I didn’t want to pay my rent money to property developers. “I’ve got a solar panel and I charge the batteries through the engine once very three days. I make my own diesel from vegetable oil.”
In America over the last few years. there has been a sharp rise in the number living off the grid – from under a million five years ago to over two million today, according to my own estimates. In the UK, growth is slower – land prices and our planning permission system inhibit progress – but there are encouraging signs. I am involved with a plan to turn a defunct coal mine into an off-grid village, and a new factory in south Wales has launched to produce solar powered gadgets of all sorts.
Think about it for a moment – a sharp increase in the numbers living off-grid (currently between 75,000 – 100,000 in the UK and over a million in America) would fulfil a whole raft of policy objectives. With housing facing multiple crises of affordability and supply and, in the case of social housing, of funding and allocation, off-grid settlements offer an important new alternative. They can help solve three problems: cheap housing – how to enable it; energy security – how to improve it; and rural regeneration – how to kickstart it.
Policymakers see it as too weird or fringe to support off-grid initiatives. But they are being timid. The Morgan Stanley analysts are not voicing their opinion of the merits of off-grid living in their forecasts, they are simply pointing to the facts of the matter.
If the government’s housing czars and energy strategists want a quick win, they need look no further than supporting two or three experimental off-grid communities. At a relatively low cost they could quickly create thousands of homes in rural areas plagued by unemployment and depopulation. These communities would have a lower carbon footprint than the average, and I believe that the houses would be cheaper to produce partly because they would not need the grid brought to their door. Also the rooms would be significantly smaller than in the typical home, since off-grid designs incorporate the understanding that heating and maintenance costs are lower in smaller buildings.
Living off-grid is labour intensive and that in itself would generate some jobs. Food production and the turning of waste into energy would create some more. And I think that many off-grid communities in future will be filled with teleworkers since wireless 4G internet will be available at relatively low cost, without the need for any infrastructure other than a phone mast. Wireless routers consume no more power than a lightbulb. We need lawyers, architects, local authorities and house builders to help make this vision into a self-sufficient reality.
Nick Rosen is editor of the website off-grid.net, a social hub for households that generate their own energy, harvest their own water, and manage their own waste. Nick is also the author of How to Live Off Grid – Journeys Outside the System (Bantam); Off the Grid – Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America (Penguin). He can be reached at [email protected].
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