John Hardin / @ 7:09 a.m. / Op-Ed

HARDIN: Going Off the Grid


The other day, an associate told me about her most recent PG&E bill. They told her that she owed them more than $500 for one month’s service. That’s a lot of money. I can understand why she was outraged, and I sympathize. I’ve never had to deal with PG&E, and I’ve certainly never paid a ransom like that, but it’s only because I learned my lesson elsewhere.

I love electricity. I always have, and a lot of the things I enjoy doing, like audio/video recording and production, cannot be done without it. Back in the ‘90s I worked with a number of environmental non-profits who would call me whenever they needed anything videotaped, because they knew I was sympathetic and had access to equipment. I shot one nuclear accident, a few exciting acts of civil disobedience, several colorful protest demonstrations and a whole lot of long boring meetings.

I stood there, pulling focus, and monitoring the audio, as Yankee Rowe officials explained “burps” of radiation they released into the air and into the river. I watched officials from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health explain the findings of the health study of the community surrounding the Yankee Rowe Nuclear Power Plant, which showed elevated cancer and birth defect rates. I squinted into the viewfinder as cancer survivor and schoolteacher Stacia Falcowski showed me the drainpipe where radioactive effluent from nuclear power plants flowed into a pond in a city park in her backyard, and I watched the Geiger-counter confirm her accusations. Stacia Falkowski lives in Springfield, Massachusetts, next to Unifirst, the company which launders uniforms from New England’s many nuclear power plants.

I watched the Public Utilities Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission screw ratepayers, taxpayers, and future generations with the false promise of “clean, safe, too cheap to meter” nuclear power. I saw how corporations, investors, politicians and bureaucrats work together to make the worst possible decisions for ratepayers, but the best possible ones for their investment portfolios. I saw civic-minded citizens make heroic sacrifices of time, energy and money to educate their community and organize resistance to nuclear exploitation, and I saw how utility companies use money, lawyers and public relations flacks to overwhelm citizens efforts to oppose them.

I’ve seen enough to know that they pump dead bodies, crippled children, the habitat of endangered species and humanity’s future through that power grid, and that’s what comes out of your wall to make your TV glow when you pay your electric bill, whether it’s Con Ed or PG&E. At the time, I think I only paid about $25 dollars a month for electricity, my share of a bill split four ways, but I really resented paying it because of what I had witnessed.

That’s when I started thinking about what it would cost, and what kind of changes I would have to make, to move my little A/V production studio off the grid. Twenty years ago, in 1997, after a lot of thought and a good bit of research, I made the leap and purchased a pair of 75 watt PV panels, a charge controller and a 250-watt, pure sine wave inverter from the Solar Living Center in Hopland. The whole system, with a battery and accessories, cost about $1,500 — more than a month’s salary at the time, and as much as I could afford.

Soon, my solar-powered PA system began providing sound at anti-nuclear protests in Vernon, Vt. Shortly after that, my production studio went off the grid, and shortly after that, so did my partner Amy and I. We haven’t paid an electric bill since, but that’s the least of it. Energy independence feels great. It’s like the difference between booking a cabin on a cruise ship, and having your own sailboat.

I soon realized I could play, record, produce and perform anywhere. I started playing outdoors, improvising on electric guitar to the natural sounds of the environment. Jamming with nature changed how I thought about music and composition and turned into a thing. These improvisations felt really good, and tended to attract audiences, which then turned into a cross-country tour, culminating with two weeks of mixing, mastering and exploring in the Mojave Desert, and my third solo album.

This solar-powered tour also led me to discover Redwood Community Radio, KMUD, and through it, the community of Southern Humboldt. Lots of people, I discovered, have their own “sailboats” out here, and well know the taste of freedom they bring. They even have a shop in town that sells them. Every time we told someone how much we liked it here in Southern Humboldt, they asked us, “Why don’t you stay?” So, we did, and now it’s home.

Maybe two people going off the grid means nothing in the big picture of global climate change, and I’m sure Con Ed didn’t even notice we were gone, but going off the grid felt empowering and liberating, and it changed my life for the better in ways I would have never imagined before I did it. If you’re on the grid, you have lots of good reasons to resent paying your electric bill, more than you probably know. The price of solar PV panels has dropped precipitously, and electric bills have only gone up since I made the leap back in 1997. What are you waiting for?

Even assuming that I would have never paid more than $25 a month for electricity, my system has paid for itself many times over, and I continue to rely on it today. Hopefully it lasts another 20 years or more. I recommend going off the grid to everyone. It’s not that hard, and it can be more rewarding than you might imagine. 

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John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.


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