Offgrid Living

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Off-Grid Energy

W. Erixon
Energy Planning Fall 2012

The following paper focuses on off-grid energy. First, it will provide a brief history and description of grid energy. Next, it will introduce, explain, and compare the two primary forms of off-grid energy: “small scale” off-grid energy, which is characterized by individual, self-sustaining housing structures; and “large scale” off-grid energy which is generated and used by small communities and cities. The Earthship will serve as an example and case study of a small scale off-grid structure. Its building materials, biotecture, and energy generating methods will be discussed. We will compare the Earthship to “normal” grid-connected houses and explore the benefits and problems associated with their differences. Next, we will discuss examples of several different large scale off-grid energy communities. Although large scale off-grid energy shares several functional similarities to small scale examples such as the Earthship (i.e. methods of energy generation, benefits associated with decreased oil and coal dependency), large scale off-grid energy has much greater ethical, social, political, and economic implications. The purpose of this research study and paper is to consider all potential benefits and problems associated with both forms of off-grid energy and to determine the practicality and feasibility of progress and development in off-grid energy.

The modern grid energy system can be traced back to Thomas Edison and his work on Pearl Street Station in the 1880s (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/07/power-grid/achenbach-text). He laid copper wires under brick tunnels and lit up Manhattan. Considering the context of its initial invention, the grid was originally designed to provide electricity for small demands on a local scale. However, the electricity grid is now responsible for transmission of energy nationwide. Presently, there are three major grid systems in the United States: Eastern, Western and Texas Interconnections. There are roughly 5,800 operational power plants in the United States (http://www.eia.gov). Over the past several decades, numerous environmental and economic factors have been causing the United States government and utility companies to reexamine the practicality of the grid system. This paper will not be discussing developments and changes on the grid system. Instead, it will focus on off-the-grid alternatives to the existing power transmission system. Below is a basic diagram of the existing American transmission grid systems.

Source: http://www.npr.org

Renewable energy has emerged as a point of focus in modern America as a response to social, economic, and political concerns regarding energy consumption, pollution, public health, waste disposal, and environmental conservation. Off-the-grid energy has appeared as an alternative to the production and consumption of energy generated by oil, coal, petroleum, and other non-renewable fossil fuel sources. It is generated and distributed locally and employs use of power generated on-site or in close proximity to the places in which it will be used (Clark & Vale, Sustainable Communities). It has an almost exclusive (non-renewable resources such as propane or diesel can still be used without a grid system) emphasis on renewable energy sources. This is not a type of energy, but rather a method of generating and distributing energy that is qualitatively different than the traditional grid system developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This method can be applied small scale, to individual houses, resulting in unique self-sustaining structures, or large scale, to bigger communities and even cities. On a small scale, this often implies a complete lack of dependence on utility companies. Large scale off-the-grid energy can be overseen by utility authorities, but it remains that the generation and distribution of energy is not centralized or nationwide, and the focus...
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