Many of us likely think of off-grid living as a way to slow down - as cabins, vans and boats far from the rat race. But this is only part of the story, and far from the most important aspect of living off-grid. We spoke with author Nick Rosen to learn more.
Nick, how has Covid impacted the off-grid landscape?
Covid has sped up lots of different trends that were happening anyway. One of those is people leaving the city to move not to the suburbs, but to move a long way away.
In the UK, it's about the struggle for space. All considerations to do with more environmental living, or cheap living, or more beautiful and natural living, are pushed aside by the problem that you just can't do it, because it's not allowed by the planning laws. This means that you can’t buy an agricultural piece of land and live an ecological life on it. The same laws stopping greedy developers from concreting over the countryside are unfortunately also stopping civically minded environmentalists from living a more natural life, because they can't afford to buy a £250,000 pound plot. They could afford to buy a £10,000 pound field - I’ve done that.
What can you build on that?
Once I found it, I quickly got a forestry expert. He got me a grant to plant a wood - mixed English broadleaf: oaks, hawthorns, ashes. I was then able to show that to the local council, and get permitted development permission for a woodland shed.
It's a glorious place. You go down this lane, and there is a 10th century Norman church, and it has a little lane next to it which says: “unsuitable for motors.” You go down there half a mile and that's where it is. I go there to write, mainly.
'The same laws stopping greedy developers from concreting over the countryside are unfortunately also stopping civically minded environmentalists from living a more natural life.'
Presumably people have been making this argument for years. Have they made any headway?
One of the reasons so many off-grid people are drawn or pushed towards living outside the system is because they feel, we feel, the system has rejected us. The system doesn't want off-grid; the system doesn't like off-grid. Electricity companies don't want us living off-grid. Political parties don't want us living off-grid. Even the Green Party, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are sort of embarrassed about off-grid. If you mention it to them, they say, “Oh, well, we're not suggesting going back to the Stone Age,” forgetting that some of the most advanced technology you can get right now for the domestic economy is off-grid technology.
'One of the reasons so many off-grid people are drawn or pushed towards living outside the system is because they feel, we feel, the system has rejected us.'
When I go down there I go off-grid, and you immediately start thinking about your own energy usage. It's automatic, because you can't just flip on the light; you're thinking about your battery. So you automatically start thinking about how to conserve energy. And that is why I think off-grid, in terms of just utilities, is going to be so much more important in the next few years.
Because we’ve realised that energy is the main cause of global warming … So if we can massively clean up our energy production and make our energy consumption more efficient, then we’re 50% of the way towards solving the problem. The trouble is, none of the solutions being put forward at the moment are going anywhere near solving the problem. In fact, they're guaranteed to increase the problem - according to the IPCC by 16% between now and 2030. That's where I think off-grid has to come in.
Do you think the Green Party is opposed to, or at least not keen on, off-grid for political reasons? Or environmental reasons?
You'd have to ask them that. Their voters all live in Hackney in apartment buildings, eating £20 organic chickens.
The green parties have made lots of mistakes over the last 50 years, which is why they haven't been very effective. But right now they are beginning to realise, thanks to Extinction Rebellion, that there are going to have to be some radical answers coming up very soon. We've got these extremely tight targets. It's obviously us in the Western world, us the industrialised countries, who are going to have to slash our energy consumption and production. It's no good blaming China.
Yes, the technology will eventually arrive for those cuts in consumption to feed into a much more efficient, circular energy economy. But that's not going to happen in the next ten years. And we have to act now.
We've had thirty or so years of uninterrupted cheap energy in the UK, subsidised by the government. And that's coming to an end right now. Electricity companies are going bust. Bills are going up 40% as we speak. Literally 800,000 people this week have had to move to a different energy supplier on a higher rate. People are going to look around in a year's time when it's doubled again, and they're going to say: “There must be a better way.” If they had a solar panel on the roof, and the battery, they could be running lots of gear off it, which would save them real money. So yeah, there's a forecast for a year from now.
'Literally 800,000 people this week have had to move to a different energy supplier on a higher rate. People are going to look around in a year's time when it's doubled again, and they're going to say: “There must be a better way.”'
Where are the off-grid bright spots in the UK, then?
The debate has shifted quite a lot. In Wales you've got the One Planet Development rules for environmental developments, and a couple of off-grid communities that have benefited. In Scotland there's always been the crofting laws, which have allowed some off-grid-communities to spring up. All over the UK there are off-grid communities. In How to Live Off-Grid I visit dozens of them. There's one in Scoraig in Scotland. It’s on a peninsula. You either walk in for five miles from the road or you get a boat across the river. It's about 200 households - all of them with their own renewable energy supplies. Then you've got Tinkers Bubble in Somerset, where they have centralised power with their own little micro-grid.
How do the motivations for living off-grid vary in the UK and US, both of which you’ve written books about?
In the US it’s much less ecological, and more to do with either necessity (because it's the only way they can live a decent life, and you can live a very decent life in a camper van or a tiny home on a tiny patch of land somewhere) or the desire for freedom … Freedom is a much bigger ideal in America than it is in Britain, where we're very content to give up our freedom all the time. In the UK, anti-consumerism and environmentalism is the biggest motivator.
Does this have an impact on the off-grid demographics in the two countries?
My estimate is about 2 million people living off-grid in the US, which is about 0.66% of the population. In the UK it’s only 250,000 … as a proportion more like 0.3 or 0.4%. So as a proportion, we're half as likely to live off-grid in Britain as they are in America.
Demographically, it’s mainly the semi-retired and retired, and young people making their way in the world. And of course in the US, the semi-retired and retired are a huge part of that two million - all those people in Nomadland, which came out earlier this year.
What brought you into the off-grid world?
It was when I was a struggling young writer. I went to Mallorca … but I couldn't afford to stay in a hotel. I found I could buy a patch of land for €7,000, and it was the most beautiful piece of land. Next to the most expensive area in Mallorca, called Deià. It’s where Rupert Graves had lived, Richard Branson, Elle McPherson, Jack Nicholson …
So I bought this patch of mountain for €7,000 and realised that I had done the most brilliant thing, because I had the millionaire’s view of the Mediterranean. I could walk into town and eat in these fine restaurants next to film stars, and it had cost me €7,000.
There was a spring on the land, I got a solar panel to charge my laptop … It came with a shepherd's hut built into the side of the mountain. It gave me the most basic shelter until I eventually built a house on the land.
In the context of these debates, how has the role of off-grid.net, the forum you founded, evolved?
There’s two really great things. One is Land Buddy, which is a way for people who want to live off-grid to find people who've got land, so that they can go and live there. And then there's a free classifieds, which is a lot of off-grid lonely hearts - old timers living in a cabin with a gun, looking for a lady to do their cooking. There's obviously all sorts of out-of-date attitudes among my audience. It brings together leftwing libertarians and rightwing libertarians. And the rightwing libertarians have, let's say, old-fashioned views about certain things.
It started as a kind of an informational portal. I’m about to launch it as a shop, which has just got the best things - the items that, if you have these items, you'll be able to be comfortable off-grid. I realised that is the kind of service that my readers want.
I'm also going to be doing much more campaigning.
What kind of campaigns?
Right now I’m launching a parliamentary petition, arguing that much more money should be devoted towards micro-grids: small, self-contained sources of energy and groups of energy consumption which could be part of the bigger grid, but might not be.
Britain has earmarked £500 billion to “decarbonise” the grid. Most, if not all, of that money will be spent on the grid. That's part of the price that we're currently being charged, and quite right too. But what I'm questioning is: should this money be going straight to the people who caused the problem in the first place?
The energy companies know how to sell energy, but their business model is to sell us more energy. We need them to sell us less energy, and they're not doing it, and they won't do it. Handing them this money is a moronically stupid moment in history.
That's the aim of this parliamentary petition: to get 100,000 people to say that some of this money - not all of it - should be spent on micro-grids.
There are places all over Britain which are underserved by the grid. It could supplement their power right now - connected to the grid later, maybe, though it’s a very expensive business to connect to the grid, and there’s no need for it in a large number of cases. You can just have local, autonomous micro-grids.
Furthermore, another unprecedented change that's about to take place is the move to the electric car. And the big thing that's stopping that move is the lack of charging points. You’re not telling me that we’ve got to connect charging points up to the grid everywhere in Britain? It could be micro-grids.