Power! People were offering me power! And I turned them down, with thanks. One way to experience off-the-grid living is to move to a rural area where storms are common. Up comes the wind, down come the trees, out goes the power. A hundred fifty years ago, not having electricity was the norm. In the last seventy years, having the power go out feels like an entitlement has been stolen. Twenty years ago, technology made it easier to disconnect from the grid, especially in remote places where the cost of connecting to the grid was ridiculously high. Now, there are so many options that when the power went out a few days ago, I had several offers of excess power being generated in various ways – and yet, I turned down almost all of them. Off grid living has come in from the wild.
Yes, Whidbey Island got hit by a storm, again. Northern Pacific Ocean storms don’t get names like they do in the sunnier latitudes. Storms in the US Southeast are basically troubled celebrities that attract a lot of press. Storms that hit Whidbey Island might get mentioned, then are easily forgotten, and people wonder why the power goes out so much, as if it was a surprise. We get hit by a recently identified phenomenon called an ‘atmospheric river.’ Imagine part of the tropical ocean evaporating in and around Hawaii, rising into great clouds, then storms, then those storms getting pulled and pushed by currents like the jet stream, then aimed to hit the west coast of North America somewhere in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, or Alaska. Now we know that at least 30%-50% of the local rainfall is actually from such storms.
Record setting rain. Weakened soil. Strong winds. Trees fall and land slides. And the power goes out. At one point, almost the entire island was out of power. Over 350,000 people in the area were out of power. Whidbey was slated to get repaired later, after the main damage on the mainland was fixed or at least patched. The estimate was that it would take four days to fully restore power. Eep.
Islanders, however, are prepared. Fancy homes can be equipped with automatic generators that clatter to life, even if no one is home. Folks in occupied homes might have to drag our theirs, disconnect the grid, fill the fuel tank, start the generator, hope, and carefully turn on some subset of lights and appliances. Until recently, almost everyone else got by with fireplaces, woodstoves, camping equipment, and maybe frantically feasting on everything that might spoil. Personally, I have relied on an ice chest in the carport, a car camping stove, and maybe some cold meals. Don’t feel bad for me. Some of those meals were smoked salmon Caesar salads with organic veggies, and a very nice wine. An adventure – for a day or so.
As word spread that we’d be out for four days, my smartphone got a few calls. Do I need power? One friend recently had so many solar panels installed that about the only thing they couldn’t run was the big oven. They had an extension cord reaching to the driveway for any friend who wanted to recharge batteries. A neighbor recently bought a very nice RV, a diesel RV with a large fuel tank and a very capable generator. Initially I declined the offer to use their external outlet, but decided to test it – just in case. By the time another friend called I’d spent so much time considering the alternatives that I surprised them by saying “thanks but no” (despite also turning down a visit to their awesome garden – but, well, the pandemic discouraged the visit.)
Within the last year I bought myself a couple of presents: a small solar panel, and a small battery pack. The solar panel only generates 10 watts. The battery pack only holds about two recharges (basically more than two days) for my smartphone. They only work for small devices, but that isn’t much of a hardship, anymore.
Up until a few months ago I had what I called my “big hurking battery”. It only could deliver 400 Watts for a couple of hours, but that was enough to keep batteries charged, and periodically power up the router so I could check on the internet. Nothing fancy. Actually basic brute force, frugally, of course. But, good enough for temporary outages.
The battery died, and I couldn’t find a direct replacement.
My internet connection changed. The old dsl line could work as long as I had power for the router, and the router didn’t demand much. Now, I have a fiberoptic connection, but when the power goes out, it goes out. Eep! again.
Thanks to the pandemic and just generally shifting to working more from home, there was less to count on at the office. Almost all of my new equipment is smaller, more efficient, and can be charged from a USB connector instead of a three-pin plug.
When I couldn’t find a direct replacement for the big hurking battery to power the router, and because the internet connection was no longer as robust, I did some research and learned that my smartphone’s Hot Spot meant I could still access the internet.
The smartphone could be charged from the solar panel or battery. Careful laptop management helped it last days. Even my various newer flashlights and lanterns either used very efficient LEDs or were rechargeable without plugging into anything except the Sun, indirectly.
I still appreciate big power sources for heat and cooking. But the reliance on those wall plugs is diminishing. The cost of hooking up solar panels is decreasing. The efficiency of our electronics is increasing. The difference between how much power a household can generate versus use is shrinking, and in some cases has flipped to the point that there’s so much power that they can call people and invite them over for electricity.
Going off-grid (or returning to an older more rural way of life) was a necessity for remote residences. Now, there are more reasons and it is easier to go off-grid even in suburbia. As these trends progress, connecting to the grid is becoming a mandated anachronism. Sure, there are advantages to being part of the grid, but it had been a necessity. Soon it may be something to do because the municipality requires it.
Climate change continues because pollution and consumption continues. But a small, local, temporary disaster proved to me that we’re making technological progress, progress that in another twenty years may mean fewer reasons to have power poles poking up along roads, fewer reasons to have power lines scratching across views, and fewer interruptions as power switches from centralized power plants to each house generating at least some of its own. This storm was also a reminder of the power of community and generosity, even during, or especially during chaotic times. A bit of lightness that shone more brightly because of the darkness.