Begrudging the Grid
Air Date: Week of June 4, 2010
On the Grid by Scott Huler
Infrastructure in the United States is under-funded and woefully outdated. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood hears two different views on how to reform our ailing grid. Nick Rosen, author of “Off the Grid,” suggests decentralizing utilities, while Scott Huler, who wrote “On the Grid,” wants to stay plugged in and work to improve the system.
YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young. A water main breaks, a storm downs a power line, and suddenly we are without. These temporary inconveniences are the few times we really appreciate the grid we take for granted--and consider the vulnerability of our water and power systems. Two new books examine the infrastructure of the United States – they are, “On the Grid,” by Scott Huler, and Nick Rosen’s “Off the Grid.”
As you might guess from those titles, the authors have some very different ideas. So we invited them onto the program to grapple with the grid. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood refereed our discussion with Scott Huler and Nick Rosen.
HULER: Hi, it’s good to be here.
CURWOOD: So I’m looking at your book Nick Rosen, yes the title is, “Off The Grid,” but also it says, “Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Governance and True Independence in Modern America.” In brief, what is your book about?
ROSEN: Well literally, “off-grid” means living without utilities, but also has a metaphorical meaning, which is living kind of outside the system, or half-in and half-out of the system, and so going off the grid is something that more and more people are doing because it’s getting easier.
The technology is allowing it—the low energy fridges, the more efficient solar panels, and the fact that it’s becoming more acceptable and you’re allowed to “tele-work,” you know, be on the internet in the boonies, and so people are exercising this freedom, some of them are.
CURWOOD: And Scott Huler your book is called “On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work.” Tell me in brief, what is your book about?
HULER: My book is about all of the systems that the people in Nick’s book want to do without. My book starts from my house and looks up and says, ‘look at all these things sticking out of my house, these wires, these tubes and these pipes, where do they go and how do they work,’ and it asks questions like, okay we had a drought here in Raleigh, a drought of biblical proportions where it just stopped raining for months and in the middle, at the worst part of that drought, when we were almost out of water, you could turn on your tap and brush your teeth for 20 minutes, with the water running while you were humming Mozart and you would never run out of water.
And it asks questions like, ‘how on earth is that possible? How could it be that that happens and you flush your toilet and you never have to think for five minutes about what happens to that stuff, and how can that be,’ and is that a good thing or a bad thing, and above all just how does it work and how did we get to this place and what next.
CURWOOD: Well it seems both of you would agree that for 99.9 percent of us, we all would be looking for electricity and water in our lives. You two don’t disagree on that, do you?
HULER: Oh not a bit.
ROSEN: I have a small quibble with that. Living off-grid doesn’t mean doing without electricity and water--it means providing your own electricity and water. And a lot of people would say, well why on earth would I want to do that? But there are quite a few people who think they can answer that question. They say they want to do that because of the ever-increasing price of electricity, or because they don’t trust the system to deliver them electricity and clean water and the other things that we traditionally rely upon the state to provide.
And they’ve come to distrust the state and authority and the financial system and they just want to provide for themselves. It’s not so much self-sufficiency, although for many that is a factor, it’s self-reliance.
CURWOOD: So Scott Huler what about this. In fact, within the last, say six weeks, right where we are at the studios of Living on Earth, we’ve had to boil our water because the water main system failed, we’ve had power outages, and of course almost everyday we have traffic jams. So these folks who are looking to get off the grid; how much a bad thing do you think that is?
HULER: I am in favor of all kinds of, sort of, adjunct technology and technology that frees you from paying companies who you don’t trust or anything like that. If you want to generate your own power I’m in favor of that. If you want to clean your own water rather than using municipal water I’m in favor of that too.
But no matter how easy the systems get and how great the systems get, I think it’s still going to be a lot more trouble for each person to do it than to do it as a group. And yes as you pointed out, Steve, in Boston you had that shocking water main break. The collar they put on that water main was seven years old! It’s unspeakable that something like that should be breaking.
And that demonstrates how bad we are getting at paying the taxes to take care of these systems that take care of us. But I much more strongly trust a municipal water system and the people who run it and who have degrees in running that, then I would trust my neighbors to take good enough care of their sewage so that my water, if it was coming from a well wasn’t fouled and---
ROSEN: Well you say that—
HULER: Go ahead.
ROSEN: Well you say you trust the municipal water authorities but the fact is, as I describe in my book, Associated Press did a survey of most of the major municipal water systems and they found that the water was polluted with all sorts of drugs that have passed through the human body and then not been taken out by the filters. So actually I think that trust is a bit misplaced. And I’m not saying we should all stop drinking the tap water immediately, but what I am saying is that I can completely understand somebody who wants to provide their own water.
CURWOOD: And let me be sure I understand what you’re saying, Scott. Many suburban areas just a little beyond the reach of, say, a main sewer system, they use septic tanks and leach fields and they have wells. What kind of risk do you think these people are at?
HULER: I don’t think they’re at an enormous risk. When you have septic systems and you have, as you say, wells, and you have government people coming out to manage that and make sure they’re installed properly, I’m in favor of all of that. I’m just saying that living in Raleigh, N.C., in my quarter-acre lot, I don’t care to get off the sewer system and I don’t care to get off the municipal water system and I’ve just spent two years hanging around with the people who manage and run those systems and I couldn’t have come away more deeply impressed with the work they do under very difficult circumstances with never enough money.
And, though, I certainly see Nick’s point that there are more and more dangerous substances showing up in those systems, and we’re always running behind to catch up with a new thing that we found, that’s always been the case. I don’t think that that indicates some sort of malfeasance on their part and I don’t think that it indicates they’re not doing well enough. I think that it indicates there’s something new and especially when you look at these personal care products or pharmaceuticals, that’s us putting that stuff in the water, that’s not the treatment people throwing it in the water, it’s us putting it in the water. We could solve that problem by using less of those products quicker, than we could by waiting for them to find a way to pull out what we’re dumping.
ROSEN: I don’t really buy that argument that we have got to be a bit careful about where we urinate after we’ve take a contraceptive pill, for example, because we know that that’s not going to be filtered out by the water system. I think it’s an all or nothing case. If you’re a big water company you either say you can do the job or you get out of town. You can’t be selective and say, ‘well we can do it, but just not that bit.’ You know, I have also got respect for the kind of middle-ranking engineers who keep the system going. But the fact is that the history of the electricity business and the water business is a history of corruption and devious business practices, which are aimed entirely at maximizing the profit of the businesses and really are not specifically designed to be in the interest of the public.
CURWOOD: Woah, woah, woah, okay Nick, wait a second. That’s a very broad brush to tar an industry. So please explain, at least give us an example here.
ROSEN: Enron is an example of what happens when we just let the utility companies get completely out of control. But Enron is just indicative of the state of the overall electricity industry because at the moment the industry is not sufficiently regulated and spends as much time trading electricity with itself as it does supplying the electricity it produces to ordinary members of the public.
HULER: I couldn’t agree more with that. That something like Enron is a great example of un-regulated industry gone wild. And your examples of what’s wrong with industry, to me, that’s human history. There’s a shock for you that when you look at people who amass power and amass control they suddenly stop acting in the public interest and start lining their pockets. This is not a stop the presses moment. This is reality; this is how humans beings act.
And so I’m totally in favor of enormous regulation and enormous public control but I’m still not convinced that the way to move forward is to disassemble the grid. There’s an enormous part of the world that would hear you saying ‘I think that sewage treatment or municipal water supply is a huge scam,’ people would weep to hear you --who have it-- talking about, ‘I want to do without it,’ whereas a billion and more people in this world would give an arm to have their children, give their children access to the water than any Western European or American could get by doing nothing more complicated than turning on the tap.
ROSEN: Well that’s a very interesting point, because if you’re talking about the couple billion people in the world who are not on any grids, then I would say of them, that in places where the grid does not yet exist, there is no longer any need to invent it. The grid, as it exists in America, the electricity, the water, the roads, is an extraordinary technological achievement, but it may turn out to have been of its time, and that time may be about to pass. We have found that in fact we can do a much more efficient job by creating energy locally, much closer to where it’s used. I’m not talking about in each individual building here, I’m talking about something called micro-grids, but it is very much literally a case of returning the power to the people, rather than allowing it to be centralized in the hands of a few producers.
CURWOOD: After studying the grid you both came to the conclusion that it is tremendously vulnerable. Knowing this, what should we do? And what have you done with this knowledge? Let me start with you Scott.
HULER: The most important thing that I think we can do is take a seriously look at our tax structure. I think we need to start paying taxes and taking care of these things. I guess I’m going to be labeled as a “tax and spend liberal” but I’d love to see us pay more taxes and take more care of it through government oversight.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you the same question Nick Rosen. After studying the grid you say it’s tremendously vulnerable, so what should we do, and what have you done with this knowledge yourself?
ROSEN: So what I would say is what we should do is be aware that it’s an option, that living off the grid is an option that you don’t need to be scared of. That it really is quite doable. I quite agree with Scott, you really wouldn’t want to do it all yourself. But I wouldn’t mind being part of a community which supplied its own power and water and where one or two members of that community were more involved in maintaining those systems than the rest of us.
CURWOOD: And what would be the advantage of that?
ROSEN: There are many different reasons that people give you for living off-grid. One of them is a fear of peak oil, or a fear that the system is going to collapse in some way. There’s an argument that says, ‘I don’t really want to spend my life maintaining my mortgage and paying the utility bills when I could live somewhere a bit smaller and a bit less expensive without any utility bills, and then I don’t have to work so hard.’ So there’s an element of freeing yourself from the cares of society.
CURWOOD: Scott Huler, you write that, “you can’t go off the grid anymore, we’re all on the grid.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
HULER: Yeah, I think that in a larger sense I think it’s almost impossible to go off the grid and I would make “air quotes” if you could see me because all these people who are off the grid have their satellite internet technology, and of course the internet is powered entirely by grid power, and they drive on paved roads when it’s time for them to go into town and get their groceries, the groceries they don’t grow themselves, so I question whether you really even can get off the grid anymore.
CURWOOD: Nick Rosen, as we were getting ready for this interview, the thought came up that off-the-griders are seen as extremists, you know, these are people who are really pretty upset with society and want to check out as best they can. How accurate is that?
ROSEN: Some of them are. For some people that is completely accurate, and I met some very angry and very paranoid people, intelligent, but yet frightening in their mistrust of the system, and in their belief that, for example, that 9-11 was a George Bush conspiracy, and that was given to me twice as the reason why certain individuals that I interviewed in the book are living off grid.
And I find that sad and worrying. But equally the majority of people who live off the grid, the ones I met anyway, are doing so for different reasons and they’re not doing it in a solipsistic or hermit like way, they’re doing it as part of a group, part of a society of other people living off the grid. I don’t mean necessarily that they’re living in a commune, but they might well be living in an off-grid community where hundreds of others like them are also living that way.
CURWOOD: It seems to me both of you are saying we need to be aware of how and where we get our power, our water, how we travel, the resources. If I listen carefully, you’re both saying the same thing. You can’t really get completely off the grid and yet you can’t simply mindlessly be on the grid and not pay attention to the consequences of our actions.
ROSEN: The one area where I disagree with Scott, although I do admire his focused examination of the grid, I think he goes a little bit too far in kind of championing the grid, and I think that Scott is a bit of a cheerleader for the grid. Whereas when he charts its shortcomings I’m very much in agreement with him. But when he holds it out as something worth spending two trillion dollars to preserve I’m not so sure I’m him there.
HULER: Well I think Nick’s exactly correct. I am nothing short of a cheerleader for the grid. I spent two years looking at this stuff and saying, ‘oh my God how did this happen and what an amazing accomplishment it is.’ Where it’s going in the future I can’t be sure of. Neither were the people who I spent all this time with. They’re not sure. But they all believe that they can manage it and they can keep it working and keep it working well. I think that Nick.
ROSEN: They can, they can keep it working Scott, but at what cost? Can you imagine all the different ways that that money could be spent in order to set up local systems for dealing with water and waste disposal, in order to set up small-scale electricity production. You could run the entire country in a completely different way.
HULER: You could...I’m not convinced that that would be better or cheaper. It might be, and it’s well worth studying. I think that when you can build—I just saw Raleigh open up a 90 million dollar water treatment plant and what they can do there, at the 15-20 million gallons per day rate, they can do enormously wonderful things. I’m not sure that you can do that if you’re going to do it all small scale. Maybe you can, I’m willing to be convinced, but I haven’t seen that. Nor have I seen the structure by which you would put in 50 sewer plants to replace our one sewage treatment plant and that leaves me basically trusting the fertilizer that they produce, the soil treatments they produce.
These resource issues are the questions we’re going to be asking every day of our lives, and so I wrote On the Grid so that you would be aware where does my electricity come from, where does my water come from, where does my sewage go, where does my trash go, who paves my roads and how and why. If you have a basic understanding of how it works at least you’ll be prepared to be an enlightened citizen, and an informed citizen in the debates that will come, that will make the small disagreements that Nick and I have had here look like playing patty cake when people really start talking about spending real money.
CURWOOD: Scott Huler’s new book is called “On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work.” And Nick Rosen, your book is called “Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America.” Well I want to thank you both for taking this time with me today.
HULER: It was a pleasure to be here.
ROSEN: Thanks very much.
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