(Off) The Grid, the Bad and the Ugly

An estimated 1.7 billion people live off the grid to varying degrees. In the United States, about 200,000 people live off the grid, which in this case means going without public utilities, without fossil fuels, or otherwise separate from The System. They make up for such abstentions through any combination of solar power, wind power, composting, smart architecture, makeshift shelter, gardening, farm animals, ingenious gadgets, and just generally being really, really persistent. Most of them seem to live in the Southwest (or the ones in the Southwest just have the biggest mouths.)

People go off-grid for various reasons. Not having to pay utility bills; reducing one’s carbon footprint; and freeing oneself from The Matrix to eventually learn Kung Fu, fly inside Agent Smith’s body, and explode him into a trillion digital bits are the top three reasons individuals and families go off-grid.

The results aren’t always pretty. Some of these people are half- or all-crazy. But they will outlive the shit out of all of you when the Russians team up with the aliens to resurrect Hurricane Katrina and laser-guide it to Washington. Read on.


The West: Still Wild

The 2007 documentary Off The Grid: Life on the Mesa shows a community of hippies, ne’er-do-wells, war veterans, drug addicts, rednecks, and teenage runaways living in relative obscurity in New Mexico. They generally live in cobbled-together shacks and abandoned automobiles. They have issues, but they make do by hook, crook, or .357 Magnum. Here is a preview of the documentary:

(And here it is in its entirety. You’re welcome!)

True Goat-Love

The venerable NPR journalist Doug Fine has been living off the grid in New Mexico with his son and girlfriend for a few years. He sometimes races his goats on his bicycle. His exploits are humorously related on his blog. An overview of how he lives off-grid:

The Beverly Hillbegleys

Actor Ed Begley, Jr. has been an active environmentalist since 1970. Here, two kids roll up in a biodiesel-powered van and get treated to a tour of his impressive eco-friendly home in Los Angeles:

Off-Grid Chique

Actress Darryl Hannah has a solar home and a kick-ass car that runs on vegetable oil. She often demonstrates the environmental friendliness of biodiesel by sipping it–into her mouth–on-camera, on her video blog DH Love Life. Here, Hannah tours the homes of some rich L.A. friends of hers (well, one of them claims to be frugal, but dude, look at his house) who are seriously living it up, off the grid:

Energy = Massive Ingenuity X the Speed of Sunshine Squared

John Wells of the Southwest Texas Alternative Energy and Sustainable Living Field Laboratory conducts off-the-grid living experiments. The interviewer in the following video talks too much, but whatever. Learn:

Earth Cowboy

No article about off-the-grid living is complete without mentioning a company called Earthships Biotecture, located outside Taos, New Mexico. The company constructs customized Earthships. An Earthship is a passive solar- and wind-powered home made out of natural and recycled materials. Its main structural component is used automobile tires and soda bottles. It gets water from precipitation collection. It treats and recycles waste water. It is built with the surrounding land and climate in mind. It is attractive and livable. In short, an Earthship is utterly and completely badass. Here’s a tour:

“Mole” or “Tunnel” People

Mole people are people who live in underground passageways, such as abandoned subway tunnels and storm drains. New York City and Las Vegas are two of the best known mole people communities. Such tunnels are often well warmed by the naturally occurring thermal heat, which accounts for their attractiveness to folks who don’t mind the odd cockroach or lethal flash flood.

Above: A couple living in the storm drains under the Las Vegas Strip.

Whether mole people should be called “homeless” or “off-the-grid” is a matter of debate. I am inclined to classify them as off-the-grid, because most of them have a single, predictable place to sleep every night. The following is a trailer for Voices in the Tunnels: In Search of the Mole People, a 2008 documentary about mole people in New York City.


Like I said, some of these off-the-grid people might be two scoops short of a raisin bran, but we’ll see who’s dead and who’s eating warm beer bread out of a solar oven when the ice caps blow up.

by Will Conley


  1. This report tries to make it look like all those that are looking to get “off the grid” are nuts wearing aluminum foil beanies.

    Some people do it because they have no choice, their farm is miles from any utility.

    others do it for ecological reasons, solar is clean and free, and depending on the system, you can go spartan, just a few lights water pump etc. or go out and install a system that has so much surplus energy that you can actually sell it to the electric companies.

    and some others do it for economics, the initial costs may be high but they eventually pay for themselves eventually.

    another reason is sometimes people just do like having to depend on others and like being in charge of their lives.

    but in this report seems everyone that is off the grid is either waiting for the Russians to invade
    or Planet X to arrive.

    which by the way, if the experts predicting peak oil are correct we may all be off the grid whether we like it or not.

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