How Living Off-Grid Gave Me a New Perspective -- and Fewer Bills
Increased independence also led to a deeper transformation and reckoning with some old inadequacies.
Eric MackContributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is email@example.com.
ExpertiseSolar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/Credentials
Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Moving off-grid is obviously a big change. What drives anyone to make such a big shift? A healthy shove from the weirdness of 2020 and COVID lockdown obviously helps. For me, my last three years living off-grid have been about removing a lot of clutter from my life, deepening relationships with the remaining people and things I kept around, and finally facing up to some personal shortcomings.
That insecurity can be traced to my early twenties, when I moved to Alaska for a job and found myself living alone in the sub-Arctic and barely able to take care of myself. Everything in my provided housing (an inadequately insulated trailer) was frozen, including the water in my toilet. I didn't know how to start the gas heater or use the chainsaw to cut firewood for the back-up stove. I couldn't even swing an ax to chop what little split wood was available.
At the village bar, an inebriated local sized me up and told me I wouldn't make it there. If I had any money at that moment, I would have bet against me too. I was humbled and ashamed of my incapacity and frustrated by my inability to do much about it.
Since then, I've figured out a lot. But moving off-grid was in some way an opportunity to see if I might now be able to measure up to some of the challenges I wasn't up for when I was younger.
Today, two decades after enduring frozen nights in my Alaskan trailer at the hands of my own incompetence, my family not only stays warm at night, we source all our water, power and everything else we need without any public infrastructure.
New place, new challenges
When I left Alaska, I dove into starting a family and a career in media. But my wife and I continued to seek out places with more rugged, frontier-adjacent lifestyles. This is how we landed in rural New Mexico, a land where scientific projections forecast a decades-long megadrought, which is probably already underway.
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Rainfall in the high desert is always a magical thing, but it's all the more satisfying watching it drip into our storage tanks, knowing it will sustain my family, clean our clothes or our dishes and then be reused again to grow berries in the yard that further sustain us.
It can become a game to see how far the water can go. During a downpour I'll toss some extra buckets outside and use that water for cement and stucco in some ongoing DIY projects. That rain is now a permanent part of the house.
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The same vigilance goes for keeping track of the wattage coming in and out of the house via a modest maze of copper wire. I now know my TV uses almost as much electricity in sleep mode as it does blasting a Tarantino classic throughout the house. And I'd estimate the average shower uses around four times more water than what's actually required.
There's a deep irony here: for much of my life electricity has seemed like an infinite resource always available to me via the simple flip of a switch or push of a plug thanks to a reliable power grid. Of course, the reality is that most of those on-the-grid electrons were derived from finite fossil fuel resources and the bill for them came due each month in the form of an actual invoice from the utility as well as carbon emissions released.
Today my electricity comes from a resource that doesn't get depleted by my using it. There are almost no bills to pay, either monetarily or environmentally, and yet I track it more meticulously than I ever did on the grid.
A better way
Water is easily a more valuable resource than electricity. It's more scarce (especially in potable form), finite and essential to life.
This makes it all the more frustrating that we, as a species, still prefer to source our energy using destructive means requiring more impressive engineering than what we had to do to go off the grid.
It's a tragic accident of history that we designed modern civilization around burning fossil fuels before we figured out efficient means of storing the practically limitless amounts of clean power put out by the sun.
There's just no way that things like horizontal drilling techniques, fracking and shale oil extraction are the best use of resources when a guy like me who couldn't start his stove in Alaska can manage to set up a cleaner, free alternative on my own.
But I did do it, which means a lot of us can. Which means less demand for destruction, not to mention being able to leave a light on every now and then, guilt-free.
Although, those compact fluorescent bulbs don't last forever, so better to hit the switch.