While there are few things certain in life, especially in the hypothetical life after doomsday, one thing is almost a sure thing: the lights will go out. The way the U.S. electrical grid is set up, a catastrophic event in one area can have dire consequences in another area. Take the 2003 blackout of the northeastern United States and parts of Ontario, Canada; 50 million people, including major cities like New York, Baltimore, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, and Albany lost electricity because of an undetected software bug in a electrical control room in Ohio. Surely there have been measures taken to prevent this from happening again, right? Well, yes, a few, but not nearly enough.
According research done by a team of physicists lead by Shlomo Havlin, not enough has been done to the U.S. electrical grid to prevent another major blackout. The electric grid is a spatial network (defined by geographical location) which is dependent on a few key locations where the networks intersect. For the electrical grid to function, these key locations must be operating. As we saw in 2003, when a location fails the impact can be massive. Havlin stated in Nature Physics “Whenever you have such dependencies in the system, failure in one place leads to failure in another place, which cascades into collapse.” So, hypothetically speaking, let’s say another computer bug gets into a power plant, bringing the system down. That system brings another down, and another, and another before you know it the entire continent is in the dark. We’ve already seen it happen on a much smaller scale, so it’s no longer a question of “can it happen?” It can, and has.
So now what? Do we completely redo the United States’ electrical infrastructure? I think we all know that with the current state of the government that isn’t a priority for them. Now, the responsibility is placed on citizens to take the precautionary steps to prevent their homes from being plunged into darkness when the system fails again. Luckily, off-the-grid living has become a booming topic in recent years as the flaws of the electrical grid are being brought to the public’s attention. It may require heavy costs, lots of planning, and up front, but using these systems to create a zero-net home (one which creates and uses it’s own electricity) will pay for themselves and give you something money can’t buy: peace of mind, because when the next blackout comes, you’ll be prepared. Heck, if you pair it with a self-sufficient garden, you might never need to leave your property again (although socializing is generally encouraged).
So what exactly are the steps involved in going off the grid? Well, the first and most logical one for most people is to establish an alternate source of energy. You need to assess which source is going to work best for you (i.e. solar panels if you live in the desert, wind generator if you live in the plains), and figure out what your electrical needs are and how you will generate that much. There are ways to cheat the system and use less energy by purchasing things like tankless water heaters or wood-burning stoves, or heating your house with natural gas (plenty of other energy saving tips are everywhere online if you look around). After you have established your own electrical system, you’re going to need to drill your own ground well for water or install a cistern to collection rainwater or snow (depending on where you live, of course). Establishing a septic system for your sewage is usually the last step people take in getting themselves off the grid. Drilling for a well and installing a septic system are the most costly parts of going off the grid and prevents many people from taking the full leap to off the grid living.
So why, aside from saving your own hide in the event of sweeping blackouts and a destined-to-fail national electrical infrastructure, should you go off the grid? Well, for starters you’re going to save a lot of money in the long run. Despite heavy up front costs, electrical systems powered by renewable energy and sources for collecting your own water pay for themselves and then some within a matter of years. Think about never having to pay an electrical or water bill ever, for the rest of your life. I don’t know about you, but I will gladly forgo paying any bill, no matter how much it is.
Another benefit that is drawing more and more people to off the grid living is the fact that it’s incredibly environmentally friendly. By using renewable energy from the wind or sun, your carbon footprint becomes almost non-existent. So, not only are you saving yourself money now while making sure you’re completely prepared so survive a total collapse of the electrical grid if the worst were to happen, but you’re also doing your part to save the planet for future generations. It’s a win-win as far as I’m concerned.
Elizabeth Eckhart is a freelance writer with an interest in energy conservation, living off the grid and the outdoors. You can link to her on Twitter at @elizeckhart