By Ivan Penn
© The New York Times Co.
NEVADA CITY, CALIF. » In the Gold Rush, Northern California attracted prospectors looking for financial independence. Now, this area is at the vanguard of a new movement — people seeking to use only the energy they produce themselves.
Angry over blackouts, wildfires caused by utilities and rising electricity bills, a small but growing number of Californians in rural areas and in the suburbs of San Francisco are going off the grid. They can do so because of a stunning drop in the cost of solar panels and batteries over the past decade. Some homeowners who have built new, off-grid homes say they have even saved money because their systems were cheaper than securing a new utility connection.
There have long been free spirits and survivalists who have lived off the grid. But the decline in solar and battery costs and growing frustrations with utilities appear to be laying the groundwork for more people to consider doing so.
Nobody is quite sure how many offgrid homes there are, but local officials and real estate agents said there were dozens here in Nevada County, a picturesque part of the Sierra Nevada range between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Some energy experts say that millions of people could eventually go off the grid as costs drop. A fully offgrid system in California can run from $35,000 to $100,000, according to installers. At the low end, such systems cost roughly as much as an entry-level Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
“It’s not just the doomsayers or the eco-hippies,” said Diane Vukovic, who
“It’s not just the doomsayers or the eco-hippies. People want to have that self-reliance.”
Diane Vukovic, chief writer at Primal Survivor, an organization that helps consumers with disaster preparedness has researched the laws and regulations about going off the grid for Primal Survivor, an organization that helps consumers with disaster preparedness. “People want to have that selfreliance. It’s become so much cheaper and easier that at this point, there’s very little reason not to do it if you have the means to make the investment now.”
People going off the grid argue that utilities are not moving fast enough to address climate change and are causing other problems. In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric’s safety record has alienated many residents. The company’s equipment caused the 2018 Camp fire, which killed dozens and destroyed the town of Paradise, about 70 miles north of Nevada City. The utility’s effort to prevent fires by cutting off power to homes and businesses has also angered people.
One of those residents is Alan Savage, a real estate agent in Grass Valley, who bought an off-grid home six years ago and has sold hundreds of such properties. He said he never loses power, unlike PG&E customers. “I don’t think I’ll ever go back to being on the grid,” Savage said.
For people like him, it is not enough to take the approach favored by most homeowners with solar panels and batteries. Those homeowners use their systems to supplement the electricity they get from the grid, provide emergency backup power and sell excess energy to the grid.
The appeal of off-grid homes has grown in part because utilities have become less reliable. As natural disasters linked to climate change have increased, there have been more extended blackouts in California, Texas, Louisiana and other states.
Californians are also upset that electricity rates keep rising and state policymakers have proposed reducing incentives for installing solar panels on homes connected to the grid. Installing off-grid solar and battery systems is expensive, but once the systems are up and running, they typically require modest maintenance and homeowners no longer have an electric bill.
Some energy experts worry that people who are going off the grid could unwittingly hurt efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is because the excess electricity that rooftop solar panels produce will no longer reach the grid, where it can replace power from coal or natural gas plants.
Pepe Cancino moved from Santa Monica to Nevada County in 2020 after he and his wife, Diane, lost their jobs during the pandemic. They bought 5 acres with spectacular views of snow-capped mountains. Cancino, 42, a former home health care worker, picked up a chainsaw and an ax and began learning how to build a house and generate his own power. When they finish their two-bedroom, 2 ½- bathroom home this fall, the family, including their 15-year-old daughter, will generate electricity and use a well for water.
“There were a lot of moments,” Cancino said, “where we were like, ‘This is a lot of work.’ ” But they are pleased with the results.
Their energy system includes solar panels on two shipping containers, one of which doubles as an office and possible future guesthouse. Another set of panels will sit atop their 2,100square-foot home. They also have backup propane generators for snowy days.
The Cancinos went off the grid because hooking up to PG&E would have cost more than the $50,000 they spent on solar panels, batteries and generators.
But Scott Aaronson, a senior vice president for security and preparedness at the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade group, said that although off-grid living might appeal to some, it was “like having a computer not connected to the internet.” “You’re getting some value, but you’re not part of a greater whole,” he said. “When something goes wrong, that’s wholly on you.”
Some homeowners have lived without a grid connection for years, but interest in cutting the cord surged after PG&E began to frequently use power shut-offs as a fire prevention tool in 2019, said Craig Griesbach, director of the Nevada County building department.
The county last year published a document to help homeowners go off the grid while complying with building codes. Griesbach said officials from as far as Los Angeles had contacted his office for advice on offgrid rules. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to do this,” he said.
Electric cars available now aren’t designed to send power to homes. But newer models such as the Ford F-150 Lightning and the Hyundai Ioniq 5 will have that ability, said Bill Powers, a San Diego engineer who plans to go off the grid with the help of an electric car. “The holy grail to me now is in electric vehicles.”