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Going Off the Grid

Exploring the downside of energy independence and opting out of the grid.

We laughed when the first survivalists went off the grid in the early 20th century. Paranoid and anti-social, they braced for a doomsday scenario that never quite arrived.

We laughed when the first survivalists went off the grid in the early 20th century. Paranoid and anti-social, they braced for a doomsday scenario that never quite arrived.

The idea of going “off the grid” has been rehabilitated in recent years, and it’s no longer just the realm of back-to-the-land iconoclasts. Entire countries are anxious to cut ties to foreign sources of energy. The doomsday scenario now is not so much a nuclear holocaust as it is climatic devastation. Increasingly, environmentalists hold up independence from the electric grid as the archetype of climatic responsibility: no fossil fuels, no wasteful energy and no complicity with a flawed system.

If this refrain sounds familiar, it’s because something analogous often plays out in the political realm. Those who object to the system refuse to vote, arguing that it’s better to abstain from voting at all than to support one corrupt candidate over another. The counterargument, of course, is that if you don’t vote, you’re ignored. And if you’re ignored, you can’t possibly affect change.

Going off the grid is a refusal to cast a vote on the direction of the grid at a crucial moment in the determination of our energy future. Should the grid be powered by wind energy? Should it take measures to increase efficiency? Every windmill or solar panel that connects to the grid becomes another data point in favour of renewable energy infrastructure. All of the terrific renewable sources that have been deliberately detached from the grid provide no information, no feedback that electricity providers can use to assess the desires of their customers.

Here’s where the example of the electric grid diverges slightly from the voting analogy: there’s no reason to think we won’t have a lot of time to fix our democratic systems, but energy reform comes with an expiry date after which we can expect to experience the worst excesses of climate change.

Businesses like Bullfrog Power are already offering electricity from 100 per cent renewable energy, with a business model designed to ride the growing wave of green energy. The more green energy that enters the system, the lower the prices. And lower prices leads to even more demand.

Even at the international level, energy independence is looking increasingly like an outdated ethos. Renewable energy-sharing agreements are popping up everywhere. The biggest problems with renewable energy – things like variability – are smoothed out as the quantity that feeds into a community or country’s energy supply increases. The wind may stop moving turbines for a few hours in one part of the country, but elsewhere, solar panels are soaking up the sun in compensation.

The critical mass we need to bring environmental sustainability to the grid is dependent on our ability to tie together windmills in Saskatoon, solar panels in Fredericton and hydropower in Sault Ste. Marie. Green projects which abstain from connecting are invisible data points. They remove themselves from the system when the system itself could become green. Out of sight and out of mind to energy providers, they are missing an opportunity to push green energy into the mainstream.

It’s still a system powered mainly by unsustainable fossil fuels, but the electric grid is not going anywhere. If we lose the people who would otherwise be at the vanguard of the green reform movement there’s reason to worry that the pace of change will not be brisk enough to forestall unpleasant consequences.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, currently working with Fern Ridge Landscaping and Eco-Consulting in Milton, Ontario.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.