Going Off the Grid

off the grid

Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for more Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America

by Nick Rosen

Penguin Books (2010)

Book Review

Off the Grid is an exploration of the diverse permutations of the US off-the-grid movement. According to British journalist and documentary filmmaker Nick Rosen, living “off the grid” can have a variety of meanings. For some it means living self-sufficiently without the higher cost and carbon emissions of electric, gas, water and sewage connections. For others, it means living incommunicado without the daily intrusion of cellphones or email. In a few cases, involving political dissidents or those with criminal records, it means escaping the prying eyes of the surveillance society.

The movement includes liberal-leaning environmentalists, who Rosen describes as the “foot soldiers of the eco-revolution,” right wing civil libertarians and survivalists, the homeless and urban homesteaders who capture rainwater and produce their own electricity despite living within city limits.

In 2007, there were 300,000 off the grid households in the US. By 2010, the number had reached 520,000 and was growing by 10-15% annually.

Obama’s Smart Grid

Rosen is clearly a strong supporter – and part time practitioner – of off the grid living. He also strongly opposes Obama’s push to build a multibillion dollar “Smart Grid.”  With the latter, power companies use Smart Meters to continuously monitor users’ electricity consumption. Power companies (and Obama) are bending the truth when they claim a government subsidized smart grid is essential to respond to big growth in future electricity demand. Electricity demand is decreasing, due to the economic downturn and big improvements in efficiency.

The real reason power companies want Obama to build them a Smart Grid is to facilitate long distance trading in wholesale electricity. This is where they make their big money (Anyone remember Enron?).

The History of the Grid

The most interesting section of the book explores the historical development of the electrical grid. According to Rosen, it part of a deliberate scheme by Edison and GE (the company he founded) to increase electricity consumption. Both GE and Westinghouse launched massive propaganda campaigns to get people to sign up for the grid and purchase more electrical appliances to increase their consumption.

Although far less profitable for power companies, there’s no question that smaller, decentralized energy supply networks would have been more efficient* and cheaper for consumers.

Intentional Community

The bulk of the book focuses on groups and individuals who have created off-the-grid communities to recapture the social engagement that has disappeared from modern society. People who join them make an intentional decision to rely on one another, rather than technology, to meet their needs.

One prominent example includes the Earthship community architect Mike Reynolds started in New Mexico.  An Earthship is an ecologically sustainable home built out of used tires filled with earth or sand and other recycled items. Dennis Weaver’s documentary Garbage Warrior, celebrates Reynold’s creation of the Earthship concept. Another highlight is Rosen’s fascinating visit to an Amish old order Mennonite community in Kentucky.

Belittling 911 Truthers

One part of the book that really irritated me was the chapter belittling civil libertarians who decided to live off-the-grid after discovering the 9-11 attacks were an “inside job.” Rosen makes it appear as if people who reject the Bush administration version of the Twin Tower attacks (as I do) are mentally ill and deluded.

Support for the 9-11 truth movement is in no way limited to paranoid right wing libertarians, as Rosen suggests. Globally the movement has millions of adherents and they represent the entire political spectrum.

*Our current electrical power system loses approximately 8-15% of the electricity it creates between the power plant and the consumer.

Reclaim the Commons: Take Back the Grid


On average, Germany obtained 27.8%  of their electrical power from renewable sources in 2014, up from 6.2% in 2000. This contrasts with 13.2% renewably produced electricity in the US and 18% in the UK.

Writing in the October 22, 2014 Guardian , Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, attributes much of Germany’s success in greening their power supply to a growing grassroots movement to re-muncipalize power production. Since 2007, 170 German municipalities have bought back their grid from private power companies. This is in addition to 650 energy cooperatives owned by private individuals and cooperatives. Due to the innate inefficiency of power grids,* numerous communities have abandoned large regional grids for local distributed energy projects.

As Nick Rosen writes in Off the Grid, there’s no question that smaller, decentralized energy supply networks are cheaper and more efficient for consumers. Grids only developed because they’re more profitable for power companies.

I totally agree with Henderson’s premise: citizens need to quite relying on dishonest politicians and sociopathic corporations to help them reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. It makes much more sense to take back power generation into local community control.

What I find especially exciting is that it’s already happening.

Taking Back the Grid

In late 2013, the citizens of Hamburg (Germany’s second largest city) voted to buy back their electrical power grid. Two other major cities, Frankfurt and Munich, resisted privatization in the 1990s and retained their electrical supply in public hands. In 2013, Berlin voters also passed a referendum to re-muncipalize their power supply, but the voter turnout was too low for it to take effect.

Several US cities have hosted similar re-municipalization movements. In 2011 owing to Xcel Energy’s reluctance to pursue solar energy alternatives, Boulder Colorado passed two ballot initiatives  empowering the city council to buy back the power grid. The process has been stalled fighting Xcel lawsuits challenging the city’s right to buy the energy grid.

The Privatization of US Energy Utilities

Until about the 1980s, most US cities had public utilities. However, the lingering effects of the 1970s energy crisis and the privatization and deregulation frenzy of the Reagan and Clinton years led many cities to sell their power plants and distribution grids in the eighties and nineties. Since that time, large energy conglomerates, most of which are hooked on coal-fired power or fracked gas, have controlled most of America’s energy production.

Santa Fe and Minneapolis are also considering initiatives to buy back their electricity supply.

Sacramento, Austin and Seattle, which never gave theirs up, are far ahead of the rest of the country in their reliance on renewable power generation.

Sacramento derives 38% of its electricity from renewable resources, Austin 20% and Seattle 93.8%.

*According to the EPA. Our current electrical power system operates at approximately 33% efficiency.

photo credit: wikimedia commons