Afterthoughts: Unplugged

Going off the grid used to be more dramatic.

illustration: warren daubert

We’ve been talking a lot in the office this month about the concept of going off the grid. “Off the Grid” was the original working title for the cover story, which examines the current trend of more and more Oahu homeowners installing enough photovoltaic panels to supply all their electricity needs. When we started looking into it, it became clear that “off the grid” wasn’t quite the phrase for what most of these people are doing. They’re still hooked up to Hawaiian Electric Co.’s system, pulling municipal watts at night or when it’s cloudy, and selling back excess power when the sun is shining. As long as the equipment is working, a modern solar-powered house is functionally identical to an on-grid one.

It didn’t used to be like this.

Going off the grid used to imply a whole lifestyle, and I base that on personal experience.

I wouldn’t say my parents were full-on hippies—my dad was a chemical engineer, after all—but they definitely cherished the idea of living simply. We’re talking about people whose idea of a good time was grinding their own wheat flour.

When I was in third grade, they decided to pursue this kind of thing full-time. So they moved our family from a perfectly nice, normal house in Olinda, Upcountry Maui, to an overgrown couple of acres out in Huelo, on the east side, far enough down a dirt road to be beyond the reach of electric, telephone and water lines.

Giving up basic utilities turned out to be a challenge that would have tested the enthusiasm of even the most gung-ho. In those days, residential PV systems were still prohibitively expensive, so we were on our own, powerwise. The water heater and the stove were easily handled with portable propane tanks, but almost everything else required more creative solutions.

Want to stay up and do anything at all after the sun sets? Better light a few Aladdin kerosene mantel lamps to stave off the darkness. Need to feed a family of five without the benefit of a refrigerator? Get used to lots of beans, rice and other staples that don’t have to be kept cold. And when making a phone call involves driving a mile up the road to the nearest pay phone, you really start to weigh how badly you need to talk story with your friends.

My parents took each obstacle as it came, though, and it wasn’t long before we had a nice little homestead going. I’m sure I grumbled at the time about the injustice of having no television, but now, looking back, I have to admit that a rustic childhood wasn’t too bad at all. Without electronic distraction, I turned into a voracious bookworm and outdoor explorer. All in all, our family times became the exact picture of quiet togetherness that my parents had been shooting for.

But even they couldn’t completely avoid the siren call of technology and connection. My dad found that his job really did require him to be reachable at home, and so he relented and got one of those bulky Motorola car phones, the kind that came with a big case and a shoulder strap—in the early ’90s, still a pretty flashy gadget.

And my mom, pining for some entertainment that wasn’t a book, bought a little combination TV/VCR on which to watch Blockbuster rental tapes. It meant running the gas-powered generator at the edge of the property for a couple of hours, but The Sound of Music was worth it.

Few experiments last forever, and our family’s ended when we moved to a townhouse in Kihei. I was in high school by then, and while I was bummed about the move (hey, I was a teenager; I was bummed about everything), I’ll never forget the amazing sensory overload of flipping through dozens of channels of cable TV. An endless stream of music videos and sitcoms, with zero hassle? This, I could get used to.

These days, I am on the grid. All the way on. My place is smack in the middle of town, and, doing a quick count in my living room just now, I’ve got five screens on: a dual-monitor desktop computer, a TV, my phone and an iPad. Not only that, they’re all connected to the internet. Sometimes I browse Facebook on the tablet while simultaneously watching a movie on TV and checking text messages on my phone. It’s glorious.

It’s also sucking a lot of electricity. Maybe I should look into one of these new photovoltaic systems. I’d be able to be on the grid, off the grid.