Inter-city plumbing, electrical grids, and public waterworks are some of the most iconic achievements of modern civilization – yet today, millions around the globe are cutting themselves off from centralized infrastructure in pursuit of genuine sustainability. Off-the-grid enthusiasts are driven in their search for self-sufficiency by an eclectic smattering of motivations, from environmentalism to political ideologies to distrust in the stability of modern society – but whether tree-hugger or survivalist, these advocates for autarchy are pushing forward the technologies that allow for radically green, independent living.
Electricity is the primary concern for those looking to unplug from the modern world but keep their modern comforts plugged in. Fortunately, rapid advances in small-scale and personal power generation have made independent energy a viable alternative to the centralized power grids of urban and suburban centers.
Constant innovations in solar technology have dramatically driven the cost of arrays down over the last few decades, and the trend promises to continue. One problem with solar power, however, is that solar-generated electricity is difficult to store, requiring bulky, expensive batteries to allow for power usage during the night. Off-the-grid homeowners traditionally compensate for this with a variety of renewably energy sources, including a mixture of solar, wind, and even geothermal to provide heating and power needs. Advances in storage technologies, though, could make going grid-less even easier – zinc-air batteries, for example, have up to twice the density of lithium-ion batteries and last for decades.
Prominent businesses are also interested in gaining energy self-sufficiency to avoid the costly fluctuations of the oil, coal, and other energy supplier markets. Walmart, eBay, and Google are each a few years into headquarter trials with the celebrated BloomBoxes – a fuel cell technology that provides small-scale, sustained power generation. Even more ground-breaking technologies are just around the corner, however, as scientists look to harness the power of electrons at ever more efficient levels.
Reliable access to clean water is a vital staple of any off-the-grid property, and the recipe here hasn’t changed all that much in the last few decades. More compact and powerful pumps are available, but a nearby groundwater source is paramount. Water filtration and treatment technologies have greatly improved, however, meaning once a water supply (groundwater, aquifer, etc.) is located, making the water potable is a relatively cheap and simple process.
Rainwater harvesting is a great way to lower water needs, especially in dry climates. Rainwater can be used for flushing and cleaning purposes, stored in large, self-filtrating tanks imbedded in the building’s structure. Combined with grey-water systems, homeowners and businesses should have little trouble meeting their water needs.
Another important aspect of disconnecting from infrastructure is plumbing and waste management. Personal septic treatment systems are widely available, and scientists are pushing the capacities of bacterial colonies to safely consume and transform waste into inert, usable forms. Techniques for managing organic waste (composting, etc.) are also becoming more mainstream as the value of nutrient rich soil becomes more recognized.
Often, even the materials used to build off-the-grid homes are forward-thinking, and as sustainable as possible. Alternative building materials including bamboo, recycled waste products, and other artificial components can green up off-the-grid projects – and even the equipment to build these structures can be made sustainably, and with little access to modern supply chains.
With the advent of wireless communications, the last wall-jack connecting homes to the outside world are being rendered increasingly useless. Cell-phones have replaced landlines, and wireless internet connections are becoming ubiquitous as speeds and coverage increase. The advent of 3D printing makes possible the ‘downloading’ of difficult-to-obtain materials like spare parts or specialized products, meaning that off-the-griders may not have to leave their sustainable fortresses for just about anything.
Greenest of the Green
Off-the-grid homes and businesses are, by necessity, the most sustainable building options because they are forced to have a net-zero impact on all the resources consumed by occupants – meaning less C02, higher energy efficiencies, and minimal impact on the surrounding environment. With enabling technologies combined with the re-emergence of prefab and modular construction techniques, unplugging may soon be easier – and more affordable – than ever before.
In a world combating climate change and looking to mitigate the growing environmental crises that plague our planet from over-consumption and over-production, the off-the-grid lifestyle offers an optimistic vision for how human beings can live nearly impact-free through intelligent effort and ingenuity, in beautiful homes that combine Thoreau-sensibilities with aesthetics and comforts to satisfy even the most luxurious tastes. The future of building may be increasingly autonomous, and green, as more of us look to liberate ourselves from the grip of the grid.