Extreme Green: Living Off the Grid

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Living "off the grid" is usually the choice of the hardened survivalist, the mountain man and perhaps the odd fugitive running from bounty hunters. But more and more Americans are now opting to disconnect from the grid — i.e., government, electric and other utility services — which delivers increasingly expensive fossil-fuel-based power and is, as millions in the Northeast learned during the 2003 blackout, anything but infallible. In 2006, Home Power magazine estimated that more than 180,000 U.S. homes were supplying their own power. "Some people want to minimize their impact on the environment," says Dave Black, a disaster-response consultant and expert in off-the-grid living. "Some people want to ensure they have service if there's an outage. And some people just want to look green." (See TIME's special report on the environment.)

But going off the grid isn't as simple as unplugging your television. The grid isn't just electricity but water, heat, waste management — even your cable signal. And then there's the gas that powers your car, the government-funded roads you drive on and the air in which you fly. That's where Black comes in. He has just written a book called Living Off the Grid, a practical guide to weaning yourself off the electrical milk of modern life. To Black, the benefits of going gridless aren't just about the environment — though with electricity responsible for about 40% of U.S. carbon emissions, disconnection has real green value. Black sees it more as a way to promote self-sufficiency on a national level — all the more important as the U.S. grapples with its addiction to foreign energy, a geopolitical grid it needs to disconnect from. "I'd really like to see us reduce our dependency on resources from outside the country," says Black. (Read TIME's "Heroes of the Environment 2008.")

So how do you go gridless? Black has a few tips:

Conservation: The average American family uses 10,000 or so kilowatt-hours of electricity a year; quitting that grid cold-turkey can seem pretty daunting. That's why Black's first three words of advice are conserve, conserve, conserve. Most of us waste electricity in a hundred ways, both small (leaving our appliances plugged in and drawing a subtle charge) and large (holding on to energy-wasting appliances and lightbulbs). Reduce that waste by purchasing more-efficient appliances and tightening up insulation to avoid heat loss from your home, and you're already decreasing your dependence on the grid. "Those things will significantly reduce your bills and you'll [still] be able to lead a fairly comparable lifestyle," says Black.

Renewable Energy: As solar and wind-turbine technology improve, it will become cheaper and easier for homeowners to provide much of their own electricity. The truly dedicated off-gridder will try to use both solar and wind, as the two energy sources are complementary — when the sun isn't shining, the wind often blows and vice versa. The good news is that Congress passed an extension to the production tax credits for wind and solar power in the recent economic bailout package, which will make installing your own electrical supply cheaper going forward.

Water: Clean water out of the tap is one of the great innovations of the modern age — and something that billions of people in the rest of the world lack. But if you live on the right kind of land, you can dig your own well — as more than 17 million Americans currently do. The process is simple — dig a hole into the ground and get a pump that will pull out the water. Generally the deeper you drill, the better the water — but the cost can range from $3,000 to $15,000 depending on how far down you go. If you want to go cheaper, you can also build a cistern to collect rainwater — but you should avoid this choice if you live near heavy pollution, like a major expressway or factory.

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