Off the Grid: TV Tries On Extreme Energy Efficiency

The Twilight Zone episode "The Midnight Sun" chronicles the last days of Earth through the eyes of two women.

Stuck in an apartment building, they try to hang on as the planet heats to an inferno.

A man with a gun steals their water, which is invaluable as most of it boils off into the atmosphere. He apologizes. Then the thermometer bursts, oil paintings melt and the women pass out.

A surprise ending reveals that the earth is actually spinning away from the sun, becoming inhospitably cold. The overheated scenario is revealed to be a fever-fueled nightmare of one of the women. Everybody's going to die but by freezing, not frying.

A darker view of the future

That TV show originally aired Nov. 17, 1961, near the height of the Cold War when many could see the end of the world, or at least imagine it. The Twilight Zone was severely alone reflecting the fears rife within popular culture. Horror films with political overtones experienced a renaissance. The anti-hero emerged. And negative realism supplanted much of the just-so attitude of the previous decade.

The economic collapse, the unknowns surrounding climate change and the threat of a finite supply of fossil fuels appears to be giving rise to similar doomsday sentiment. TV has taken up the challenge of answering the question: "What if life as we know it collapsed?" With a couple of slickly produced shows.

But 21st century popular culture doomsday is not obliteration, it's discussing life without the grid – a grim return to civilization without the niceties of electronics or central government.

Falling Skies

Watch "Falling Skies" on TNT for a glimpse into life without modern conveniences and an alien invasion threatening every remaining human. Every scene has a dark cast, while the stars worry about their next meals and never seem to have time for a shower.

The stand-out character is Colin Cunningham, who plays longhair and all around bad boy John Pope. Pope knows nothing is like it used to be and acts accordingly. His humanity, not all that sophisticated to begin with, gets tested occasionally with the sometimes soap opera story lines. But he comes through in a pinch when survivors need a weapon to kill the inviting "skitters."

Soon NBC will debut "Revolution," a JJ Abrams drama centered around doomsday. This time all electronics fail and the United States is plunged into a world better suited to 19th century lifestyles. Of course, the transition was not so fun with cities full of desperate and starving people, so the show begins at year 15 when "life is back to what it once was long before the industrial revolution: families living in quiet cul-de -sacs, and when the sun goes down, the lanterns and candles are lit. "

Of course, that will not last. Conflict is certain as, well, the next episode.

A beginner's guide

Chris Neiger jumps right into the issue writing a beginner's guide to living off the grid.

Neiger offers a straightforward approach. His target audience is the weekend enthusiast, the type who would like to experience a step back from technology and civilization but still keep it close.

"Some have already made the switch," he writes, adding that many more are considering severing ties.

Makes sense, especially in the eastern half of the United States where a major storm knocked out power at the end of June 2012. Residents lived days with stifling hot homes, backed up traffic because the lights did not work and an economy reduced to old -style ledgers and hauling water because the pumps do not work. Refrigerator dumping was a must. A massive storm knocked down utility poles like toothpicks and cut power to an estimated 1.8 million.

Those folks got a taste of what could be. Most would prefer that the permissions keep the peace, that utility workers put up new poles and string new wire.

Fun with electromagnetics

But what if some terrorist organization set off an electromagnetic pulse bomb (a scenario chronicly beautified by author Theresa Shaver in her book, "Land") or if the sun sent a massive solar flare our way?

Dan Vergano of USA Today describes an EMP this way: "Whether powered by geomagnetic storms or by nuclear blasts, their resultant intense magnetic fields can induce ground currents strong enough to burn out power lines and electrical equipment across state lines."

Nice. Like that, we go from civilized to candle power.

Of course, this kind of situation has nothing to do with the living green. But if the above scenario took place, the practice would indeed have merit. Sure, some now may be considering an alternative energy lifestyle. But they appreciate the finer things we've developed as a nation. My use of doomsday is for illustrative purposes only.

What would it take?

Being forced into alternative energy is hardly optimal.

Neiger's piece did make me think, however.

He spells out what it takes. First you'll need power. The average American home uses 11,496 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Neiger suggests combining wind and solar systems. Not that this setup would be immune from a natural or wartime electromagnetic blast. But it could likely be repaired. I advise adding some backup lead-acid bus batteries.

The off-grid home also would need access to water. This can be done through a well and a submersible pump, which requires power. Waste water needs a septic system. Gray and black water can be separated, reducing the load on the septic tank.

Then there's heat. Neiger suggests propane, which can be delivered cheaply and would also be used for the cook stove, a water heater and fridge. A very reliable alternative for heat is wood. Modern wood stoves reach an extremely high interior heat, reducing smoke. Tip: well insulated homes need less fuel to heat or cool.

"Many people who go off the grid make gradual steps to energy self-savings," Neiger writes. "It starts with conservation and then snowballs into alternative energy sources."

Neiger says to expect to spend money. And that's true. However, the more basic package is relatively cheap.

On Jones Road

I grow up off grid. Really not that big a deal. Were civilization to collapse when I was a kid living in the sticks in Fairbanks, Alaska, I suspect we'd be fine. I'd get a little more sick of salmon, moose and rabbit, but not much else would change.

We had multiple buildings, super-insulated and not real big. We had a septic tank for gray water. That's sink water by the way. The outhouse required a 50-foot sprint on cold days. Mom bought the 10 acres for $ 7,500 in 1970 and built an 18-by-32 foot two-story house, a separate eight-sided sauna and barn for about $ 18,000. Expect to pay more today, but keeping it simple reduces costs.

We melted snow in winter, collected rain water in summer. We did get electricity, but many of our neighbors lived too far to afford installing poles. They used candles and kerosene.

We heated our house with wood. I cut it up in summer, split and stacked it in massive piles and burned it when the snow started to fly. Some neighbors used coal from the Usibelli Mine delivered once a year.

A post by Spy Vondega on says, "Some of those who opt for the simple life are driven by environmental concerns or religious beliefs; others fear economic collapse; and some just enjoy hunting and fending for themselves."

And some may choose to do it as an investment.