Energy Individualism

National Geographic News reports on the evil of those 1-percent DIYers:

For many homeowners, the availability of diesel-powered or increasingly common natural gas generators provides peace of mind amid ever-more-common power outages. … And in the immediate wake of Sandy, the Daily Beast suggested that backup generators had taken on a status-symbol aura, quoting a Westport, Connecticut, real estate broker who recommended emergency power boxes to all of her clients: “For the kind of money that these houses cost, to spend $8,000 or $10,000 on a generator isn’t a significant extra investment,” she said.

But a number of energy experts believe there’s a troubling side to the trend. It reflects an increasing reliance on go-it-alone solutions—for those who can afford them—rather than the needed society-wide investment in a modernized and more resilient electric power grid.

“We’ve gone to this pioneer mentality,” said Richard Little, who before retiring was director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview following Hurricane Sandy last year. “Everybody’s got to have a generator. If I lived in New Jersey, I’d have a generator too. But not everyone can do that. We’ve got to find better solutions.”

For all its reactionary bashing of profit-taking by generator manufacturers and touting of renewables, the article’s progressive solutions are just another conservative argument to maintain the status quo. The author’s base assumption — full disclosure: I’ve written stuff for Marianne — is the power grid is good and worth saving, and that only the very wealthy can afford “a pioneer mentality.” An example of the article’s slant: that $8,000-$10,000 estimate is undoubtedly for a stationary natural-gas generator; portable generators run much, much cheaper. (And even then that number rings high: I was recently quoted $5,000 by an SCG rep — but that’s what Marianne gets for believing anything a real-estate agent says).

Earlier this year Jesse Walker at Reason wrote about his liberal-feminist friend in Vermont who grows her own food, owns a shotgun, and chops wood because she refuses to live “without supplemental heat that operates without electricity” — all a result of losing power in an ice storm years ago. For this, Walker argues, she would be tarred with the pejorative “prepper” if the national media were ever to take notice of her. He has a point: anyone interested in self-sufficiency is always portrayed in either mocking or sinister tones. Instead I would call his friend a reasonable New Englander. We don’t suspect someone who drinks well water or has a septic system. So why are we suspicious of someone who can supply her own needs independent of the power grid, at least in emergencies?

We were well prepared for Irene, yet we never lost power and ended up having a fun staycation. Sandy, on the other hand, caught us with our pants down. Although I have a saltmarsh in my backyard, we were saved from flooding by a quirk of geography. Nonetheless our neighborhood was devastated and we lost power for a week. Had Sandy occurred at the same time as Irene — in late August — it would have been fine. Going to bed early and reading by candlelight was fun. We had a propane stove to cook on. The freezer needed defrosting and cleaning anyway. I found the cold showers bracing! But as the days stretched from late October into early November, the house gradually grew cooler without non-electrical means to heat it. Had the power outage continued much longer, we would have had to abandon our home for a friend’s house or a shelter.

Sometimes late at night I think about what would have happened had the outage been caused by a winter storm like Nemo. We definitely would have had to evacuate within days of the power loss, if not hours.

After more than 12 years in our little cape on the marsh — and after many, many improvements to it — we are moving next month. Our new This-Old-House house, which required substantial renovations, will feature several upgrades to our current condition. My philosophy this time has been to install multiple redundancies: natural-gas heating and hot water, negating the need for electricity to run the oil pumps; a generator hook-up hardwired into the breaker and a portable generator to power the basics; and when the gasoline runs out, a big frickin’ fireplace with a large woodpile out back and a half-acre of timber if things go really arctic. Long-term I’m thinking about solar (I grew up in a house with solar panels; my engineer dad taught college courses on solar power during the Oil Crisis) and maybe even rainwater collection and use.

A pioneer mentality is exactly what we need now. Resources should be poured into the power grid only so far as to keep the toilets from backing up or the trains running, which is already sketchy when the sun’s shining and temps are in the 80s. We need to return residential generation to a time when every homestead could fulfill its own demands. For densely populated urban areas, neighborhoods need to develop microgrids or Science Barges. And in the suburbs, homes need to become electrically independent, or at least independent enough to sustain themselves for a few weeks. “Prepping” or a “go-it-alone solution” is acceptance of contemporary failures and a visionary answer to them. Saying “not everyone can do that” isn’t a coherent argument — it’s a prejudice against those of us who have committed the ultimate political heresy of losing faith in the system.

I ♥ Vermont

I love living in New England. I love the climate; I love the green of my marsh reeds in summer and the pumpkin orange of fall. I love the geography of crying seagulls and tolling buoys after hiking in the woods. And I love the cultural ideal of self-sufficiency and minding your own business coupled with tolerance and mutual aid. But very often, when I see the bloat and abuses of the six states and the scoundrels we elect to public office, I question whether my latter infatuation is nostalgia, a romantic pining for beliefs that certainly aren’t shared now, if they ever were.

Then I read stuff like this in Vermont:

When Irene washed out big chunks of Route 100 in Pittsfield, cutting this tiny town of about 425 people off, David Colton knew he couldn’t wait. At 9 a.m. the morning after the storm, Mr. Colton and about two dozen other Pittsfield residents revved up their bulldozers and backhoes and started carving their own way out. … [B]y Wednesday morning, the town had reconnected itself to Killington, eight miles to the south, where town volunteers in turn built some temporary roads of their own.

Outside Pittsfield’s town hall, a huge bulletin board is filled with 8 x 11 paper sign-up sheets. “I can offer power,” reads the top of one list, with several names below it. “I can offer medical supplies,” reads another.

“It’s been great—everyone has a different set of skills, and we’re all coming together,” said Patty Haskins, the town clerk, adding that if the volunteers hadn’t started digging, “we’d still be isolated.”


In the marina at the storm’s crest. The gangway leads up.

The mouth of the Ash Creek. There are islands out there. Usually.


Jennings Beach. The sign reads, “Designated smoking area.”

Plenty of downed trees and mud but no serious residential flooding. Well, except to five homes far out on a barrier beach, two of which collapsed.

The skateboard park is a saltwater pool.