MY FAMILY LIVED in a suburban garden apartment during the New York City blackout of 1977, when just two lightning strikes zipped millions of Americans back to the 19th century for roughly 24 hours. We had left the city several years earlier--fortunately, considering the rough ride urban residents had during that outage. Up the river in Tarrytown, we just congregated on the communal porch to light grills, share gossip, and bum any available candles. I can still remember the hiss of the Coleman gasoline lantern my parents had packed away with a companion camping stove. That thoughtfulness on their part allowed us luxury that those hooked on electricity flowing from far away had to do without.
When it came to unexpectedly losing some perks of modern civilization, we thrived because we were prepared. "Prepping" has gotten a bad name because of the loony obsessives on TV. But exhibitionist nuttiness aside, prepping is nothing more than extending to the rest of your life the same foresight that compels you to keep a spare tire and a first aid kit in your car, and maybe a puncture kit and a compressor, too.
A sensible prepper enjoys the convenience and predictability of everyday life but doesn't assume it will never be interrupted. Done right, prepping means you're not a burden on your neighbors, and can maybe help them out in the clutch-all because you did something as simple as storing fuel and a camping lantern.
The grid is amazing and wonderful. Wanting to survive off it doesn't mean you hate civilization. It means you love the conveniences of modern life enough that you've learned to provide some of them yourself.
I'VE TAKEN MY own family even farther away from New York City, to rural Arizona. Because of that love of both civilization and independence, I'm immensely frustrated by the hurdles I've hit in trying to harness for my family's purposes that blazing ball of energy that hovers over the state. Solar power, right? It's a natural for a desert dweller. Shouldn't a nut like me, who does not want to be at the mercy of storms, lightning strikes, and low-probability disasters, have solar panels on the roof instead of a natural gas generator next to the house?
Turns out energy independence, even just for short emergencies, is a lot easier if you build from the ground up rather than retrofitting an existing structure to run off whatever juice you can self-generate. You can plan a new house to be thermally efficient, reducing heating and cooling needs, and you can equip it with appliances that sip instead of guzzle power. But if, like me, you buy a home designed to be plugged into the larger electric system, your options are limited.
Most solar installations are meant to be grid-tied and make sense only if electric utilities buy the resulting power from you. If you actually want to use the electricity yourself, you'll need to store it for when the sun sets. Solar panels and wind turbines are thus usually used to charge batteries, which are in turn used to power your TV and laptop. (Outside the desert, hydropower with a reliable year-round water source can free you from the need for battery storage.)
Because of that blazing ball of...