Monday, June 15, 2009

What does it mean to be "off-the-grid"?


The EcoCenter at Heron's Head Park, formerly known as the Living Classroom, will be San Francisco's first and only formal off-grid environmental education center. Alot of folks are always asking why we are building off-the grid, which always brings up the question of, what is the "grid" itself.

I would like to start sharing with our broader community, a little bit of information about why this building is considered to be "off-grid". Over the next few months, while we are building the center, I will be sharing information about each particular building component so that the broader audience can get a little more insight about our work and our program.

What does it mean to be "off the Grid"
"The grid" is a common name for the power grid -- the linked system that delivers electricity to the masses. A typical house is connected to power, natural gas, water and telephone lines. Going off the grid means shunning these public utilities in favor of creating your own energy or treating your own water. Some homeowners have historically choosen to be partially off the grid by supplying their own electricity and ditching their phone line, while relying on the convenience of city water and sewage. Others choose to live completely off-grid by digging wells or using a cistern system to collect water.

The term "off the grid" or "off-grid" refers to living in a self-sufficient manner without reliance on one or more public utilities. Off-grid homes are typically autonomous—i.e. do not rely on municipal water supply, sewer, natural gas, electrical power grid or similar utility services. A true "off the grid" or "off-grid" house is able to operate completely independently of all traditional public utility services. It's impossible to get an accurate count of exactly how many people in the United States live off-grid, but in 2006, Home Power magazine estimated that more than 180,000 American homes were supplying their own powe without being tied to the local utility Because many citizens around the world have never had the chance to go on the grid, current estimates are that (at least) 1.7 billion people live off-grid worldwide. When you consider all the individuals and communities living on the water, in the rural outback, and in emergency situations around the world, the number grows even higher.

There are many factors that inform a person's choice to go--"off the grid":

-Location: How far is the building site from the central infrastructure grid? What is the cost of "tying in"? Are their regulatory or easement challenges in bringing the "grid" to the site? Is there a "grid" to tie into. Many folks living in outback areas (military, water based environment, rural, permafrost zones, industrial) have no access to a utility grid.
-Financial Cost: What are the up-front infrastructure costs of tying to the grid?
-Philosophical Cost: What energy inputs are used to operate the utility grid? Coal? Petroleum? Nuclear? Many persons who decide to go- "off-grid" consider these factors.
-Life-Choices: Some individuals want to live autonomously and independently from centralized systems.

For the Ecocenter, the team was influenced by many, if not all of these factors.I would love to hear from anyone about their experience moving off the grid in an urban environment.