Citing more blackouts, wildfires and higher electricity rates, a growing number of homeowners are choosing to build homes that run entirely on solar panels and batteries.
Wim Coekaerts’s off-grid home in Woodside, Calif. While his neighbors on Pacific Gas & Electric lost power three times in the last year, he hasn’t gone without it “even for a nanosecond,” he said.Credit…Clara Mokri for The New York Times
By Ivan Penn
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 last 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 off-grid 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 off-grid 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 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 self-reliance. 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,” Mr. 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.