Disconnecting from the Electric Grid in Manhattan: Ars Technica Reader Questions Answered

February 9, 2023 by Joshua
in Addiction, Freedom, Nature

My story I disconnected from the electric grid for 8 months—in Manhattan became Ars Technica‘s top story the day it posted and the next. It also generated many questions and comments. I can’t answer them all, but I wanted to address the big ones, such as

  • How much solar power did I generate and use?
  • Didn’t I just transfer my power use to NYU “cheat”? How much power did I use there?
  • What did I do for heating and air conditioning?
  • Wasn’t I just leeching off my neighbors’ heating and air conditioning?
  • Did going out at night mean I was passing my power costs to restaurants?
  • How did I keep food from spoiling?
  • Did I have to shop for food every day, or nearly so?
  • Why bother when individual actions don’t matter?
  • Does it scale?
  • What about people without resources like yours?

I’ll do my best to answer these questions, then return to the big picture of my goals in the experiment and reporting on it.

Ars Technica Josh Spodek Disconnected In Manhattan
Ars Technica Josh Spodek Disconnected In Manhattan

First, I’ll remind everyone that my goal at the start was to experiment and use a problem-solving attitude. My first step to approach nearly every problem was first to acknowledge that people lived without polluting for 300,000 years including 10,000 on Manhattan and not allow technology to make me less able or less resilient.

My second step was to resist the temptation to say, “yeah, but they didn’t have hospitals” or some anti-problem-solving excuse.

For example, I didn’t know my power needs, the angles of the sun by season, if I’d have to go to the roof, how much other buildings would block sunlight, what my building’s board would allow, and so many other variables that analyzing and planning just ended up delaying. I’m not trying to solve every potential problem for everyone everywhere before starting. I know that unplugging would force me to face and solve my specific problems. I contend that the fastest, most effective way to solve our biggest problems is to start solving the actual problems that come up, learn from those experiences, and apply that learning to the next problems. I didn’t say do nothing else. I support bottom-up and top-down approaches, but since anyone and everyone can reduce their pollution in their lives in their ways, I propose my example suggesting it will improve your life.

Again, I am reporting results not to suggest others copy my specific setup but to show what I wish I’d known long ago, that experimenting may work better than theorizing. Others solving for themselves in their lives with their constraints will arrive at different solutions. Some won’t reduce as much as me. Some may reduce more. In a rapidly increasingly polluted world, I believe all will value the experience. I could see significant numbers of people making a meaningful difference while improving their health, safety, and quality of life.

How much solar power did I generate and use?

Recall, the only way I could consider solar was to reduce my demand to under a dollar per month and find, to my shock and surprise, that using less power improved my life.

solar roof empire state building

On a sunny day up to about two months before the winter solstice, I could carry the solar panels, power station, computer, and phone to the roof and

  1. Charge the phone and computer while using them to work (50 watts for 90 minutes if they were both near empty)
  2. Go back downstairs and use them while the power station finished charging (3 to 5 hours)
  3. Go back upstairs and charge the phone and computer (50 watts, usually for under an hour since I likely didn’t drain the batteries completely in step 2)

The power station was rated to hold 576 watt-hours. I would use it to power the pressure cooker, light, phone, and computer the rest of the day and often the next.

If I did such a day four days a week, in one week I’d use

(50 watts x 2.5 hours + 576 watt-hours) x 4 days = 2.8 kWh each week

giving me a over eight hours of computer time plus home-cooked food every day.

In weeks with more rainy days, I’d have to cut back, usually relying more on salads and other raw food. Near the winter solstice, the sun rose too late, set too early, and powered less while shining. In December and January, I’d be lucky to see more than two days a week with enough sunshine to power the computer all day, let alone the pressure cooker.

On rainy days and the winter I relied on my NYU cheat more.

Didn’t I just transfer my power use to NYU “cheat”? How much power did I use there?

I should clarify by “cheat” I meant that I avoided using NYU power beyond my normal amounts before the experiment. I didn’t just wholesale switch to working there, as many comments seemed to think.

On a typical day working at NYU, I might come in with my phone and computer near empty, work for about five hours, then leave and work from home with the battery filled from NYU. I could work from home the rest of the day or evening on that charge and repeat the next day until the sun shone again.

For a worst-case week of seven such days, numerically, I’d draw 50 watts for about 90 minutes until the computer and phone were full, then 10 watts for the next 3.5 hours, meaning

(50 watts x 1.5 hours + 10 watts x 3.5 hours) x 7 days = 770 watt-hours each week

giving me over eight hours of computer time though no cooked food.

While you could say I sloughed off all my power use to someone else in that time, my main point was reducing my home electrical power use to under 1 kWh per week when necessary.

Was I trying to disconnect from everything polluting? No. I still used the subway (though biked and walked more), the washing machines in the basement (though not dryers), and hot shower water, for example. They were beyond the scope of this experiment. Past experiments made this one possible, like learning to live without a refrigerator and using the computer less. I turn off all screens while eating, for example.

Still, buying food shipped into the city burns diesel. Using the internet causes power use in data centers. I tried to make it clear I wasn’t trying to solve all the world’s problems myself overnight. I didn’t share my results to suggest others copy my actions exactly. Even so, people can apply my process of mindset shift and continual improvement to do in their lives for themselves their equivalent. With billions of households in the world, even if not one reduced to zero, they could still reduce plenty, enough to decrease power grids.

Moreover, even if no one reduced much but did become more resilient, able to withstand a day or two without power, we could still reduce electric grid sizes, redundancies, and storage when powered by renewables, meaning less need for extraction, fewer peaker plants, and greater security from attacks.

What did I do for heating and air conditioning?

I hadn’t used either for years. I don’t have a thermometer, but gauging from the layers I wear in the winter, I’d guess inside my apartment drops below 60F (15.5C) in the winter. This past summer I don’t think New York hit 100F (37.7C), but usually it does. In past summers, I’d use the fan a lot, but not this summer. This year, I spent more time on the roof and at NYU, which air conditions all its buildings.

I won’t lie: during the summer I woke up sweating some nights. Sleeping closer to the window helped. On the one hand, I don’t expect many Americans to tolerate sweating. We’re too entitled. Also, the advent of air conditioning combined with neglecting concern for people suffering from pollution led to many people living unsustainably in the Sun Belt. They’ll point out that they can’t live without air conditioning. I suspect places like Phoenix will become ghost towns like those left behind from the Gold Rush. We can only fight nature for so long.

Meanwhile, people have lived on Manhattan for about ten thousand years without polluting. Waking up sweating isn’t the worst challenge in an experiment.

Wasn’t I just leeching off my neighbors’ heating and air conditioning?

In an apartment building, I benefited from sharing my ceiling, floor, and three walls with neighbors using heating and air conditioning. Since the building provides central heating and cooling, I still saved them money and lowered power use. I’ll explain. The building’s heater/chiller circulates heated (with gas) or cooled water through the building in insulated pipes. Each apartment has insulated fan units. Turn them on and they blow air past the hot or cold pipes to heat or cool your rooms. That process cools or heats the water in the pipes, which forces the heater/chiller to reheat or recool that water.

I didn’t use my fan, so I didn’t affect the temperature of the water in the pipes in my apartment. In the winter when I seal my windows, I believe I lose heat mainly through conduction, which depends on the temperature difference between the window and outside air. Since my windows are cooler, that means the whole building loses a tiny fraction less heat overall, even if my neighbors blow their fans a bit more to maintain their desired temperatures.

I still pay an equal amount in my monthly building fees so I overall reduce power use and costs. (I also pay for the elevator and trash disposal I barely use, repairs, which cost a lot, but that’s another issue). In the summer when I open my windows, I think the losses are still conduction, but through the shared walls, floor, and ceiling.

I still benefit from my building’s heater/chiller. I reduced as much as I could without moving.

I also think about people visiting other places to see what it’s like there. Maybe they visit India, where people sleep outside in greater heat and humidity than New York’s, but Americans visiting observe them from within air conditioned hotel rooms and cars. In a sense, I’m experiencing different cultures across space and time.

Did going out at night mean I was passing my power costs to restaurants?

I rarely eat out or order takeout, maybe five or ten times a year. On the other hand, I’ve hosted people for meals dozens of times, since I enjoy hosting and serving my famous no-packaging vegan stews, now solar powered. I thus cause a net savings in energy since I doubt the friends I host would have eaten raw otherwise.

I don’t think I’ve bought ice in my life. I avoid packaged food. All my food is trucked in, so that’s another place I rely on polluting technologies, but, again, that’s outside the scope of my experiment.

My biggest new evening activity that resulted from this experiment was volunteering more. In my case, I work with a group that picks up food from stores that would throw away perfectly good food to accommodate incoming stock and delivers it to a community center where needy people pick it up free. A delivery means about two miles of walking, pulling a wagon behind me. The policy is that volunteers keep some of what they haul, and recipients don’t take the vegetables as much, so I get free vegetables out of it.

This volunteering largely replaces screen time, diverts food from landfills, and feeds hungry people. I do it three times a week, for a cumulative five to eight hours, resulting in about $10,000 to $30,000 retail value of donations, though it’s hard to make that number precise. I’ve earned a reputation among the recipients for bringing the largest loads most consistently.

How did I keep food from spoiling?

The biggest way is avoiding packaged food. Fresh vegetables and fruit can usually sit on the counter or a cool cupboard for a while. Apples last weeks, as do hardy greens like cabbage and celery. Squashes, potatoes, and onions can last months. Lettuce in water grows so the longer I leave it, the more I get. Grains, dried beans, nuts, seeds, and flours can probably last years, though I finish them earlier.

I don’t buy things that go bad fast, like mayonnaise, ketchup, and most packaged things. I once found a report on the average American’s food spending by category. I wrote up comparing my food expenses to the average American’s. I spent less overall. My largest cost didn’t even exist as a category for the average American: dried beans, which cost a couple dollars a pound.

I shop seasonally, meaning only buying what’s plentiful and farmers are trying to get rid of while competing most, so I save money while getting the highest quality. I don’t eat whatever I want whenever I want, which practically means more novelty and variation in my diet, not less.

Most of my produce comes from my weekly CSA (community supported agriculture, where I pick up a weekly drop-off). Cutting out the middleman and need to transport lowers costs and increases freshness and variety. Plus I meet my farmers and visit their farm annually.

Outside the summer, I can keep leftovers on my windowsill for a night or two. In the winter, maybe three. In the summer, I sometimes can’t keep leftovers one night, so I prepare smaller batches and ferment more. My original motivation to experiment unplugging my fridge in 2019 came from an article on Vietnam not refrigerating as much, so I knew I could learn to handle heat and humidity, mainly shopping for foods that will last, preparing smaller batches, and fermenting.

Did I have to shop for food every day, or nearly so?

Before this experiment, since my CSA provided so much produce, its weekly pickup covered most of my perishables. In abundant late summer months, I had to invite people over to help finish. Dried legumes, grains, nuts, and non-perishables I buy in bulk a couple times a month.

This experiment led to free produce from volunteering, so even outside the late summer, I have abundant produce.

Why bother when individual actions don’t matter?

I have to reinforce the following point more often than any other. The point of this experiment is not my reduction. Any individual action divided by eight billion rounds to zero. While I do value personally polluting less, this experiment is part of a leadership exercise.

I coach executives, especially at large polluting companies, as well as elected officials to lead themselves and others to change culture. You can’t lead others to live by values that you live the opposite of.

If you want to play Carnegie Hall you have to play a lot of scales. If you want to reach Wimbledon you have to hit a lot of ground strokes. To lead executives, I’m playing scales, hitting ground strokes, practicing the basics.

Does it scale?

Nearly everyone uses more power than they need, especially considering that not one human being connected to an electric grid more than about a century ago. The poor would benefit the most from the savings. The rich can decrease their pollution far more than I can. Kicking an addiction is hard and withdrawal can be difficult, but we all benefit from it. Polluting less creates freedom.

The people most affected are those in poor countries displaced from their land to extract resources and where our waste gets shipped. For some reason, nearly everyone considers their personal considerations to the complete exclusion of the people affected by their pollution. I suspect the reason is to avoid facing feelings of guilt, shame, helplessness, and hopelessness, but not facing our emotions doesn’t help people in Cancer Alley or Sacrifice Zones in this country or much of the rest of the world outside it. We can help them all by polluting less. Actually, to be more precise, we wouldn’t help them so much as stop hurting them.

Nothing scales better than polluting less.

What about people without resources like yours?

Growing up, my parents struggled to make ends meet. Because they lacked time and money, they combined forces with another nine families to take turns driving down to the food distribution center in South Philadelphia. Roughly once every ten weeks, it was my dad’s turn to drive down at 4am and buy ten families’ worth of food. Buying in bulk at 4am meant lower cost, higher quality, and overall less time shopping.

Eventually their group folded into Weaver’s Way coop, which continues to be a mainstay of the community. For some reason people seem to associate coops with higher costs, but I find they save money and keep it in the community instead of extracting it. I buy my bulk items at a coop and nearly all produce from farmers markets and CSAs.

Like everyone, I know many communities lack access to resources like farmers markets, CSAs, and coops. The last thing I want is to reduce this access, which shopping at delis, supermarkets, and places like McDonald’s or Amazon.com that extract time and money from communities augment. They’re like cheap liquor stores. The best way to increase farmers markets and CSAs is to shop at them if you can. Shopping seasonally, I save money by shopping at them. Many people tell me they cost more. I can only conclude they splurge on fancy stuff while I stick with the basics.

I also lead workshops in areas without access to help gain access. They invite me back, so I presume I’m helping them.

The big picture

A word on mission and strategy. Different people read our environmental situation and what to do about it differently. I’m acting and reporting my results for people who believe we face serious problems, already including colossal suffering, mostly outside Ars Technica’s readership so far, that could affect everyone if we don’t act fast. If you believe otherwise, my actions and reporting won’t make sense.

If you believe nuclear, wind, solar, or fusion will solve our problems, I won’t make sense either, but my research shows they will at best temporarily decrease some greenhouse emissions while exacerbating and accelerating most other problems, including biodiversity loss, displacing people from their land, plastic polluting the ocean and our arteries, and so on. I see changing our culture, to restore lost values of stewardship and the Golden Rule in how we treat each other mediated through the environment. I’ve made my mission to help change culture in that way, which I’ve written on my bio.

On strategy, I agree governments and corporations have to act, but I believe that people spending tens of thousands of dollars on extracting and burning will motivate them not acting, no matter how they vote or protest. Systemic change begins with personal change. My personal actions are necessary, not sufficient. I agree with Teddy Roosevelt: Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got. I started taking personal responsibility for how I affected the environment a decade ago, partly expecting and hoping I’d find my actions too hard or ineffective so I could say I tried, give up, and say I hope someone else would solve our problems.

Instead, I found each step toward sustainability simplified my life, allowed me to focus more on what mattered, like family, earning a living, enjoying nature, and personal and professional growth, with less distraction from things that didn’t matter. That mindset shift led me to continually improve my life and look toward leading others. We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a year. This step of disconnecting my apartment from the electric grid in Manhattan may seem big, but it was small compared to the last step I took, which was small compared to the step before it, and so on.

I’m sharing my results for purely practical reasons: to show something someone like me would have considered impossible was possible. I wanted to see if I could make one month. I couldn’t see how I’d make more than a few days. I was surprised as anyone I made the first few days, the first week, the first month, the first quarter, to the winter solstice, and so on. I didn’t write here to prescribe specifically what anyone else should do. I wrote to share what I’d want to hear if someone else had done it: reporting a successful experiment do something I would have thought impossible. I love stories that make me want to explore my potential.

I learned growing up that not innovating and growing risked returning to the Stone Age, which left me feeling helpless and powerless in the face of a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation.

I’ve learned that cultures that don’t pollute, that have lived sustainably since long before agriculture weren’t living in the Stone Age, despite my beliefs. Could it be that I could learn from them? Could it be that we could take the best of their sustainability and the best of our innovation? I wanted to find out through experience, not guesswork.

I also recognize I’m just one person with one unique living situation. I’m not trying to solve all the world’s problems by myself overnight. I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that anyone do exactly what I did. But I believe that everyone can follow my process: a mindset shift followed by continual improvement, which I offer in stark contrast to the mainstream messages I see, like “10 small things you can do for the environment” or suggestions just to talk about it.

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