Editor's Note: The following is the first in a new Utility Dive series, "Diary of a Grid Defector." Each month, Utility Dive's Robert Walton will report on his adventures setting up an off-grid cabin and exploring developments in distributed energy in upstate New York. We hope his experiences will give our readers an insightful, first-hand look at what life is like at the edge of the electricity system—and how the revolution in distributed energy technologies is changing it.
Hey readers, I'm Robert. You may know me as a reporter who writes for Utility Dive about clean energy technologies and how the utility industry is changing. But you may not know that I am experimenting with living off the grid in the woods of rural New York.
When I'm not talking to utility executives or industry analysts, I mostly work on the land bringing down dead trees on my neglected piece of forest. And stacking firewood for what I'm told could be a bitter winter ahead.
Two years ago, I was working for SNL Energy, running their natural gas desk in Washington, D.C. I lived in large apartment buildings where the rent included utilities. I never saw a power bill. Now, if I decide to binge-watch House of Cards on Netflix, it better have been a sunny day.
Choosing to live in a rural, forested area made me think consciously about my own power consumption, looking for flexible solutions that would run my relatively small power load in a variety of situations. My project has been one of intentional minimalism, trying to see just what I needed and what I could do without. But as I cobbled it all together over time, I was surprised by how precisely my own setup mimicked the technologies I write about daily – albeit on a much smaller scale.
When I write for Utility Dive, much of my focus is on how the industry can scale up these new technologies – how energy companies take demonstration projects and then roll them out to larger groups of consumers. But in my case, it's the other way around.
What lies ahead
While my off-grid cabin is a project of sorts, an experiment, a little modern-day Henry David Thoreau action perhaps (Walton Pond, anyone?), it turns out I've landed in a fascinating area for energy and utility innovation.
I'm about 30 minutes away from Ithaca, just on the edge of the Finger Lakes National Forest. To the east is Seneca Lake, where Crestwood Energy has a gas storage facility that has the region in an absolute fit. You can't walk into a restaurant or coffee shop without someone asking where you stand on the projects – one an expansion and another new storage. Opposition to the industry is fierce, and “No Fracking” signs are still just about everywhere despite a statewide ban on the practice (though there are also plenty who would like to see hydraulic fracturing in the state).
My property actually has a gas lease on it, but there is virtually no chance it will be developed.
New York's Reforming the Energy Vision is happening, too, with multiple demonstration projects proposed in the region. The New York State Electric & Gas Corp. (NYSEG) is working on how to integrate more distributed resources into the community. A local brewery just went solar and now gets its electricity entirely from renewable sources, thanks to local solar installer Renovus Solar. Energize Ithaca, backed by ASI Energy, is working to develop a microgrid to power downtown businesses, based on cogeneration, wind, and solar.
Looking ahead, I'll be writing a monthly column for Utility Dive on these projects, my own off-grid endeavors, and what the industry can learn from the transformation of the grid at the ground level. At the very least, there should be a couple good jokes to make when I start to freeze come winter.
For the curious (or if you just like energy humor), here are the basics of my off-grid set-up:
I don't use much energy.
My cabin is about 220 square feet, and gets good late-day shade. I cook on propane, will heat with wood, don't use a refrigerator or microwave, wash clothes in a laundromat, and don't watch a lot of television. I'm not saying my energy needs are a useful comparison to anyone else, but here's what I require: Lighting; laptop; smart phone; air conditioner; television.
Basically a mashup of today's common technology devices, along with the all-important cooling load.
First off, a message to the solar installers out there: This stuff is tough to figure out. I looked at a bunch of kits and hobbyist web sites, components on Amazon, but ultimately decided that for a variety of reasons, a plug-and-play unit would best suit my needs.
Enter Goal Zero's Yeti 1250, a “solar generator,” according to the company. The expandable kit comes with two panels, a 1,250 watt battery and other refinements, will accept another two panels and can be chained to additional batteries.
The Yeti is good for power in an outage, allowing you to run a couple of appliances a few hours. Or it's portable(-ish) power at a work site or tailgate. The battery weighs about 100 pounds, which really starts to put utility-scale into perspective. But with a total 1,250 watts of storage, you either use it sparingly or you just don't need much.
The recharge time from the panels is slow, and so power management is key. I do, in fact, check what's available before I fire up the blender and put on an episode of the TV show "It's Always Sunny" (wouldn't that be great for solar generation?).
What's that mantra that traditional generators always say? Something about baseload needs and the sun not always shining?
Turns out they may be right.
The Yeti won't run my 5,000 BTU air conditioner once the compressor starts drawing power, which is necessary on some of the hot and muggy days around here. Heat goes up, power demand spikes and I have to call in my own traditional generation — a diesel generator. It doesn't run on free fuel like my solar panels. It's not the cleanest and it's noisy, but it gets the job done.
I use the generator to recharge the Yeti's batteries – which means in bad weather I can run fossil fuel generation in the morning, recharge batteries and then consume the power in the evening (and not have to listen to the power plant hum – a kind of auditory load shifting? I call it a “peak and quiet” event).
For a variety of reasons, sometimes I run low on power. Sun didn't shine, I ran out of gas, the grid operator (me) misjudged demand (read: left the lights on). But I like my energy supply to be flexible, and so I've got a 55.5 Wh battery that does little more than keep my phone charged and the internet humming.
But that's the point, right? It's a little power island within my own grid. When all else fails, I can keep the most essential services running (and for a reporter in the woods, communications are the definition of “essential”).
I use one of RavPower's iSmart batteries for this.
The Yeti solar-plus-battery system may not be the biggest, but there are a lot of aspects I like about it. On six acres of land, sometimes you want power in a more remote section. The system has wheels and can be (somewhat awkwardly) moved as needed. It can also be moved to recharge from a traditional power supply – so if I buy my brother a six-pack for letting me recharge my system at his house, it starts to look a lot like the New England ISO buying power from Canada.
And to me, one of the most fascinating developments in battery storage is the potential to use banks of electric vehicles as a resource in outages. A new generation of cars and charging infrastructure will allow power to flow both ways, potentially keeping the lights on for hours in the event of an outage.
That's my laptop, basically.
Silly as it sounds, how many times have you plugged your phone into your laptop to charge? The now-ubiquituous USB charging ports mean a device that stores and consumes power can also provide energy back into the most essential services when needed.
Much to do
Jokes aside, I have a lot to do in the coming weeks. The cabin is unfinished, a shell I purchased and still need to complete. Insulation is next – you can't talk off-grid without talking efficiency – followed by actual walls, because the studs are getting boring to look at.
And then there's the all-important stove. “Don't skimp on your stove,” Carol Stimmel over at Manifest Mind told me when I mentioned my off-grid plans.
But there's also a host of REV demonstration projects being set up around the state that I'd like to look at. And I want to get over to Two Goats Brewing and talk to them about their solar panels, and what that process was like. (And drink their beers.)
Henry Thoreau spent just over two years at Walden before he “sojourned” back to civilization. I've got the internet, so it's not the same thing at all. But I'm curious to find if I can really reduce what I need and be happy, and maybe, at the same time, shed some light on how new technologies are changing the way we consume power — both on and off the grid.
As Thoreau himself wrote: “No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.”
The editors of Utility Dive would love to hear feedback on this new series from you, our readers. Did you find Robert's dispatch interesting? Useful? Applicable to your job? Or maybe you simply have a tip for his new, off-grid lifestyle. Whatever it may be, send us an email at [email protected]