Offgrid Living Essay

The following paper focuses on off-grid energy. First, it will provide a brief history and description of grid energy. Next, it will introduce, explain, and compare the two primary forms of off-grid energy: “small scale” off-grid energy, which is characterized by individual, self-sustaining housing structures; and “large scale” off-grid energy which is generated and used by small communities and cities. The Earthship will serve as an example and case study of a small scale off-grid structure. Its building materials, biotecture, and energy generating methods will be discussed.

We will compare the Earthship to “normal” grid-connected houses and explore the benefits and problems associated with their differences. Next, we will discuss examples of several different large scale off-grid energy communities. Although large scale off-grid energy shares several functional similarities to small scale examples such as the Earthship (i. e. methods of energy generation, benefits associated with decreased oil and coal dependency), large scale off-grid energy has much greater ethical, social, political, and economic implications.

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The purpose of this research study and paper is to consider all potential benefits and problems associated with both forms of off-grid energy and to determine the practicality and feasibility of progress and development in off-grid energy. The modern grid energy system can be traced back to Thomas Edison and his work on Pearl Street Station in the 1880s (http://ngm. nationalgeographic. com/2010/07/power-grid/achenbach-text). He laid copper wires under brick tunnels and lit up Manhattan. Considering the context of its initial invention, the grid was originally designed to provide electricity for small demands on a local scale.

However, the electricity grid is now responsible for transmission of energy nationwide. Presently, there are three major grid systems in the United States: Eastern, Western and Texas Interconnections. There are roughly 5,800 operational power plants in the United States (http://www. eia. gov). Over the past several decades, numerous environmental and economic factors have been causing the United States government and utility companies to reexamine the practicality of the grid system. This paper will not be discussing developments and changes on the grid system.

Instead, it will focus on off-the-grid alternatives to the existing power transmission system. Below is a basic diagram of the existing American transmission grid systems. Source: http://www. npr. org Renewable energy has emerged as a point of focus in modern America as a response to social, economic, and political concerns regarding energy consumption, pollution, public health, waste disposal, and environmental conservation. Off-the-grid energy has appeared as an alternative to the production and consumption of energy generated by oil, coal, petroleum, and other non-renewable fossil fuel sources.

It is generated and distributed locally and employs use of power generated on-site or in close proximity to the places in which it will be used (Clark & Vale, Sustainable Communities). It has an almost exclusive (non-renewable resources such as propane or diesel can still be used without a grid system) emphasis on renewable energy sources. This is not a type of energy, but rather a method of generating and distributing energy that is qualitatively different than the traditional grid system developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This method can be applied small scale, to individual houses, resulting in unique self-sustaining structures, or large scale, to bigger communities and even cities. On a small scale, this often implies a complete lack of dependence on utility companies. Large scale off-the-grid energy can be overseen by utility authorities, but it remains that the generation and distribution of energy is not centralized or nationwide, and the focus remains on renewable energy sources. The Earthship and small scale off-the-grid energy

Our world resources are depleting at a more rapid rate each year. A select few have found ways of lessening their global footprint through living off the grid and depending on alternative energy sources. People using alternative energy sources are saving our natural resources and relying on an unlimited source of energy. These select few have chosen to live off the grid and are self reliant and independent. Off-the-grid homes are autonomous in nature. They do not rely on any municipal water supply, sewer, electrical power grid, or any other public utility service.

There could be a hurricane where everyone loses electricity but the offgrid family using alternative energy are independent of the power grid, and will retain their electricity and heating depending upon the alternative energy they have. A true off-grid home has the capability to maintain temperature, comfort, and sustain it’s self without any traditional public utility services. Once installed, the alternative energy eliminates electric or heating bills making offgrid very cost effective. There are multiple types of alternative energy sources, solar, wind, geothermal with each having advantages depending upon what the circumstances are.

Solar energy is dependant upon the sun. The energy produced can also be collected and stored. Passive solar produces heat and provides lighting for structures. Active solar produces electricity using a technology called Solar Photovoltaic, or heat, hot water or electricity a technology called Solar Thermal. (EPA) Solar energy is best used in a place with plenty of sunlight and placing windows on the south and west sides of a house will provide the most passive solar energy. The location should have plenty of sunlight in order to consider panels as a viable alternative.

Solar powered water heaters will provide hot water. A long time ago, windmills were used to generate energy but wind turbines have made this energy source more viable. Windmills first came about in the 1st century AD to power a machine. They were used to mill grain for food production. Windmills convert wind energy into rotational energy using vanes called sails. Depending upon the location, the use of wind as an alternative energy source may be more suitable. A high, unobstructed location with a constant breeze would be best to use wind turbines as an alternative energy solution.

Wind turbines on a small scale are becoming more popular. Geothermal is another type of alternative energy enabling people to live off grid. Geothermal energy was used in spas in 3rd century BC in China. France has the oldest geothermal district heating system built in the 14th century. A great benefit of geothermal energy, as an alternative energy source, is that you can use it any place on earth. It doesn’t have to be sunny or windy! If you dig about 6 feet underground the temperature remains constant at about 50 degrees. As you dig deeper, it gets hotter.

Geothermal energy uses the constant temperature of the earth to heat the air and water. Fluid is circulated through a closed loop of piping in the earth where it heats up and is circulated back through the house. Geothermal energy is the least expensive alternative energy method. A combination of alternative energy sources works best in order to move totally off the grid. Water turbines and solar energy work well together since they can both charge the same battery bank holding the energy till needed. Geothermal can be incorporated into your duct system while solar energy will use the wires in your home.

Geothermal energy may be used to heat your home while solar energy can provide the electricity. A family may primarily use solar energy during the summer months and switch to the use of wind turbines to provide most of their energy during the winter months. Living off grid to the full extent would require an independent living environment in a home built from recycled or reclaimed materials and able to generate energy required for heat and electricity. One concept is called The Earthship. Earthships are autonomous buildings designed to reduce our impact on the planet and increase our connection to it.

This is done by using the suns energy, and thermal mass of their own walls for heating and cooling. They are capable of generating their own electricity from the sun, harvesting their own water from rain, dealing directly with their own waste. The home is built using discarded tires and other wastes for wall construction. Each is constructed with materials with low embodied carbon, and in addition, are buildable by most people at relatively low cost. (Earthship 1990) Michael Reynolds began the concept of earthships in the 1970’s in Tao, New Mexico where a whole community of earthships exists. Earthship 1990) He has written several books and travels teaching the concepts of earthships. The homes are economical and an average person is able to build one. Reynolds uses the ter m “Biotecture” to describe what he does as an architect. Biotecture is defined as a profession based on architecture, biology, and physics.

Reynolds utilizes garbage in his profession of Biotecture. (Garbage Warrior 2009) Your first consideration should be choosing a site. Earthships require sunlight to be directed on them as much as possible. The earthship was developed at 37 degrees north latitude and at an altitude of 7000 feet n Northern New Mexico. With winters dropping as low as 30 degrees below zero. Even in this extreme climate the earthship is able to maintain a temperatures of 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. (Earthship 1990) The location must maximize on sunlight. Each earthship faces south to allow for the most sunlight possible. The south face of the earthship is constructed out of a glazed glass on a perpendicular angle. This glass and specific angle help reduce the reflection of the sun’s rays. Constructing an earthship in this manner helps in maximizing the potential energy obtained from the sun, this process is called passive solar energy.

Passive solar energy uses the sun’s energy, simply through the way the structure is oriented, designed, and/or constructed. (EPA) Earthships also require stable, undisturbed land to be constructed upon. Earthships tend to be submerged below ground to eliminate surface area. The thermal mass provided by the earth acts as a thermal store that radiates and emits heat. (Kenneth Ip 2009) The retaining walls of the homes are made using reclaimed tires that are packed with dirt and stacked horizontally like bricks. The dirt makes them completely fire retardant and have great load bearing capacity.

The tires are a good insulator and retain heat and emit it when it gets cold. The interior is plastered so the tires don’t show. Aluminum cans are plastered into curved interior walls of the house to create separate rooms. Finally large wood beams are put in place to hold up the heavily insulated roof. (Earthship) Source: Ip & Miller 2009 Earthships use a lot of ecological concepts. Earthships even utilize composting toilets. Water collects on the roof from rain and snow and is channeled into a cistern. It is then filtered of bacteria, after the filtering water is channeled into a pressure tank and used for everything except toilets.

Toilet water is made from grey water, which has already been used and filtered. The grey water from the toilet is sent to a solar septic tank and after it is processed, sent on to a leach field where it will water and fertilize plants. Initially Reynolds used compost toilets but now the earthships have regular toilets. Water is heated with the sun and natural gas. The sun heats the water and a natural gas water-heater will turn on only when water temperatures are too low. (Earthship 1990) Earthships are able to produce their own electricity with a prepackaged photovoltaic solar panel and a wind power system.

It is stored in deep-cycle batteries and kept in a room built on the roof. The stored energy is sent to a power-organizing module and circuit breakers are used along with normal wiring throughout the home. Electricity can be used to power any appliance including televisions, computers, washing machines, etc. (Earthship. com) Earthships are known to suffer from overheating or overcooling. Satisfactory thermal comfort conditions still require some additional sources of energy to maintain energy needs during summer and winter months. This may come from occupants and heat generated from the appliances when the building is occupied. Kenneth Ip 2009) However, they can potentially eliminate utility bills. They are sound structurally due to the curved modules. The processing of water makes the building environmentally appealing. The combination of photovoltaic solar cells and wind turbines is an inexpensive way to provide electricity. An earthship can be made to appeal to anyone aesthetically. Earthships are built in every state and throughout Europe. Engineered plans are available which surpass building codes and unlike other forms of off grid living make it easier to get an approval by the building inspector.

It would be awesome if people started caring about the environment before they are forced to. The earthship seems like a viable cost effective way to live. It would be favorable if alternative energy were used as the principle energy source and a backup gas generator as a secondary resource. Off-the-grid communities: possible and practical? The following section will address large scale off-the-grid energy generation, provide a few examples of sustainable communities and cities in the state of California, and discuss potential economic benefits and obstacles of developing off-the-grid communities.

Ultimately, cooperation between public and private sectors would make off-the-grid energy more accessible. Government regulated large scale off-the-grid energy has the potential to contribute to the nation’s desire for decreased reliance on non-renewable resources and foreign fossil fuels, for improved public health via lower pollution levels, and for reliable long-term energy supply. Before proceeding with any case studies, it is significant to accentuate the fact that small scale off-the-grid living is not a widely reliable or practical method of energy conservation.

It is impractical and unrealistic to require or even expect every individual citizen or family to live off-the-grid in a specially designed structure. As discussed in the preceding section, self-sustaining structures such as the Earthship have certain financial requirements and are limited to specific locations, building materials and architectural designs. The choice to live off-the-grid in a self-sustaining structure is similar to the choice to live in an apartment or a town house, or the choice of what town to live in, or what occupation to hold. Personal choices such as these cannot be designated by any type of government authority.

In the 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? the “consumer” was identified as being one of the parties responsible for the failure of the electric car. Consumers were disinclined to spontaneously purchase a new electric car because their current car had no problems and the need for change was not imperative. They could not be expected to all sacrifice their chosen lifestyles to purchase a car because it was more “environmentally friendly”. Off-the-grid energy generation is in a situation comparable to this. Choosing to live off-the-grid cannot be forced on the public, the citizen, or the consumer.

However, proper government involvement and regulation of large scale off-grid energy generation is possible, practical, and would promote developments in off-grid-energy, fundamentally decreasing pollution and reliance on non-renewable fuel as well as eliminating the problems associated with Edison’s “outdated” grid transmission system (i. e. blackouts). Source: Sustainable Communities 2010 Three cities in California, Santa Monica, Berkeley, and San Francisco, have demonstrated a commitment to developing sustainable energy policies on a community-wide scale and have the potential to set an example for the rest of the country.

One significant thing all three cities have in common is the creation and funding of organizations and commissions specifically designed to regulate and supervise sustainable energy action. For example, the Sustainable Energy Financing District in Berkeley supervises solar initiatives and state and federal subsidies which make installation of solar electric and solar thermal systems affordable and practical for property owners (Stoner, Sustainable Communities 57). Santa Monica created the Sustainable City Plan which features ten principles intended to serve as uidelines for sustainable decision making and development (McEneaney, Sustainable Communities 80). These principles include an emphasis on long-term energy sustainability, preservation and restoration of the environment, economic health, social equity, and community awareness. Santa Monica boasts approximately 1 MW capacity of power (1% of the whole city’s energy demand) from rooftop solar alone (McEneaney 96). This accomplishment was a result of the Community Energy Independence Initiative of 2006.

Even more impressive is GoSolarSF, the largest solar task force in the country. This San Francisco organization is expected to generated 50 MW of solar within the next decade (Dugar et. al. , Sustainable Communities 97). Similarly, the Urban Windpower Task Force intends to produce up to 420 MW of electricity with offshore wind power (Dugar et. al. 104). All three of these cities have demonstrated the potential benefits of investing in organizations and initiatives to support renewable energy and off-the-grid energy.

There are several problems and obstacles for renewable off-grid-energy that must be taken into consideration: (i) overconsumption of energy; (ii) existing infrastructure that fundamentally resists change; and (iii) inability of impoverished or low-income communities to invest in sustainability. The current rate at which America consumes energy is a problem which limits the potential benefits and practicality of sustainable, renewable, off-grid energy. “In his book The Future of Life E. O.

Wilson points out that if the earth’s 6 billion plus inhabitants were to increase consumption rates to the level we maintain in the United States, we would require four planets to meet the world’s demand for natural resources. “(Magar, Sustainable Communities 57). According to the US Department of Energy, electricity demand will increase by 39% by the year 2030 (Clark & Vale 265). In order for renewable energy to make a positive impact and reverse any environment damage or pollution, consumption rates must decrease. Tad Patzek held a similar view during the 2005 CSPAN debate Ethanol and Energy Policy.

He explained that if the United States was to decrease its energy consumption by a factor of two, it would roughly equal that of Northern and Eastern Europe which actually has a harsher climate than the US. A second problem involves the resistance of the current infrastructure of the United States to new, off-grid energy policies. We have been operating on the transmission grid system for over a century. “Communities are not ‘blank slates’. Effective sustainability strategies must account for exisiting buildings, transportation systems, energy infrastructure, and industry. (Magar 58). Switching to off-grid energy or to renewable fuel sources will necessarily involve alterations in existing engineering, architecture, and utility systems. This carries certain economic implications (cost of change and labor to enact change) as well as social implications (public receptiveness and willingness to cooperate with new infrastructure patterns). The final issue to be discussed involves the realistic universal applicability of large scale off-grid energy when considering economic inconsistencies and social class divisions.

Low-income and impoverished citizens, families, and communities exist in developed, industrial countries such as America. In order for a sustainable energy initiative to be practical and effective, it must be universally applicable. (It is exactly this lack of this applicability that small scale off-grid living cannot be considered as a genuine initiative toward global sustainable. ) If off-grid energy is to be considered as a genuine solution to environmental concerns and energy demand, it follows that it must be universally applicable and therefore reachable even by low-income communities.

Yannick Glemarec (2011) examined these problems through researching in industrial countries as well as undeveloped communities and areas. He argues that the success of the decentralized telecommunication industry in undeveloped areas may imply that these areas have the willingness and potential to develop renewable energy strategies and systems. He also advocates a necessary collaboration between public policy makers and investors from the private sector (Glemarec 87). He argues that the role of government is overlooked but is the key to making sustainable off-grid energy an accessible and practical option even for poor communities.

In fact, he specifies several direct economic benefits for poorer citizens and communities including reduced energy expenses, reduction in household expenses (improved health), increased net incomes, and savings in time and effort (Glemarec 88). The reason sustainable energy practices are unreachable for the poor is not because it is not affordable or economically beneficial. The government should (i) lower upfront costs of energy which prevent poorer households and communities from choosing their energy methods, (ii) eliminate taxes and tariffs on clean energy, (iii) educe subsidies on fossil fuels, and (iv) provide private investors with financial support and risk compensation to encourage them to support sustainable energy in developing areas. (Glemarec 88-89). In conclusion, large scale off-grid energy is emerging as a potential solution to environment concerns and energy demand. However, in order for it to be practical and effective, several things must be considered. Local and state governments, and even possibly the federal government, must develop organizations and commissions to create and regulate sustainable energy initiatives.

Case studies in the cities in California demonstrate that this is possible. In addition, the government must demonstrate an commitment to sustainable, renewable resources. In doing so, it will encourage private organizations and individuals to invest in off-grid initiatives and will make sustainable energy accessible and applicable to everyone. Finally, as also demonstrated by the California case studies, community awareness and involvement is absolutely necessary. Without universal willingness and cooperation from all social and economic angles, off-grid energy would not be possible.