I’ve Been Living Off-Grid In Manhattan for Half-a-Year

8 minute read
Joshua Spodek hosts the This Sustainable Life podcast, is the author of Initiative and Leadership Step by Step, and is an adjunct professor of leadership at New York University.

Sunday, May 22 was the last day my apartment was connected to Manhattan’s energy grid. That morning I used my pressure cooker—powered by portable solar panels I had bought on Craigslist and carried to my roof to charge—to cook a pot of stew. Then I decided to take it one step further: to use no grid power for a month. I unplugged everything: my laptop, phone, toaster, microwave, floor lamps. Then, to make sure, I disconnected the main circuit breaker, physically cutting my apartment off from the grid.

Frankly, I didn’t think I could make it three days. Sure, people go off-grid in the woods, but I’m an executive coach and adjunct professor of leadership at New York University and am used to a certain standard of living that relies on my computer to teach students and work with other clients. I didn’t know what challenges I’d face or if I could solve them. I may have a degree in astrophysics that helps me understand the principles of power and energy, but I didn’t have any hands-on experience using solar. But now I’m in my sixth month living off-grid in my studio apartment, and rather than the sacrifice in time, money, isolation, or convenience I expected, I’ve found joy and freedom.

More than half the world lives in cities. If, like me until this experiment, they believe polluting less is impossible, they won’t try. Systemic change requires overcoming our collective lack of imagination. I wanted to learn what was possible.

I didn’t start my off-grid experiment out of the blue. I trace its roots to another experiment ten years ago: starting to take responsibility for my own garbage. I challenged myself not to buy any packaged food for a week. As of today, the combination of avoiding both packaged food and deliveries, along with composting, has kept my trash to a bare minimum: In December 2019, I emptied my trash down my building’s chute—I have yet to fill an entire new bag since then, and I have produced just one load of recycling. More important than the physical result, where I expected deprivation, I found it improved my life. Where else in life might I find that pattern?

Read more: Your Junk Drawer Full of Small, Unused Electronics is a Big Climate Problem

My mindset shift led to a process of continual improvement. In 2016, I decided to stop flying after learning that the pollution from a round-trip flight between London and Los Angeles was equal to about a year’s worth of driving. An article about other cultures refrigerating less and enjoying healthier, less polluting diets prompted me to unplug my fridge in December 2019. I didn’t see how I could survive one week without refrigeration but made it three months, the next nearly seven. The third time—in September 2021—I aimed for eight months, but I’m still going. The joy of the experience sparked the idea to unplug my whole apartment.

It’s trickier than you might think. After my co-op board balked at accepting a free compost bin from the city, I doubted they’d allow installing a solar array on the building’s roof. So I bought foldable solar panels and a portable battery. The biggest challenge is when it rains for multiple days in a row, limiting my ability to recharge my battery. In such spells, making sure I missed no client meetings or other calls meant fastidiously planning when I would go to the roof to charge, taking advantage of working at NYU (plugging in my laptop and cellphone at work was my one cheat), charging when the clouds cleared, avoiding watching power-hungry videos when possible, and favoring salads and other uncooked foods.

My solar power and battery set-up only generate 200 watts and 576 watt-hours respectively. Fully charging the battery takes four hours on a cloudless day with the sun at its zenith. That charge is enough to power the pressure cooker one load, which feeds me for about five meals, and leaves enough battery to power the computer and phone for a few hours, depending on my usage. I could also work on the computer while charging (which I did while typing these words), so all told, I have to recharge the batteries about four or five times a week.

My days soon came to revolve around the sun when it shone and trips to NYU when it didn’t. By waking before dawn—around 5am in the summer—I avoided daytime heat and reduced my need for lighting. I started reading more; avoiding the computer meant I wrote more by hand; and I practiced exercise and meditation routines. I timed my trips to the roof with my work meetings and calls—taking the stairs rather than the elevator. During evenings, with time freed from video and social media, I volunteered more in my community. The solar battery has a small LED light that is enough to cook and eat by. I still use my building’s hot water. I don’t use my gas stove. The sun setting started making me more tired and I fell asleep faster. I used no air conditioning, and confess I woke up sweating during a few of the hottest nights.

Food required planning though not much extra time once I developed the skills, including how to ferment. I had to triage each shopping load: Spinach wilts fast and doesn’t ferment well so I’d have to eat it quickly. Tomatoes last up to a week. Apples stay good for weeks. Potatoes and squash can last months. Greens like cabbage and kale ferment well, preserving them for months. Grains and dried beans last forever.

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It had already been satisfying to see my electricity bills plummet to under $2 (not counting the connection fee and taxes) after I unplugged the fridge. Now they’ve dropped to zero. It is yet more satisfying to see my monthly energy consumption at 0 kWh. (I’ve held back though from closing my account entirely.)

If you asked me about the best way to solve the world’s environmental crises before starting this journey ten years ago, I would have said individual actions don’t matter, only governments and corporations can make a difference on the scale we need, and related reasons not to act. But systemic change begins with personal change. Governments and corporations acting isn’t the starting line; it’s the end of a marathon of hard but rewarding work. Their acting is also the beginning of a new marathon.

My off-grid experience has since taught me the challenges of intermittent power, but also about entitlement, addiction, resilience, attitude, humility, and heart. Ultimately, it has strengthened my connection to humanity and nature, and emphasized what’s at stake.

My motivation to start this journey was only partly to lower my pollution. I find sustainability lacks leadership. Plenty of people are teaching numbers and telling people what to do, but I don’t believe that’s leadership. You can’t lead someone to live by values you live the opposite of. We lack role models living sustainably, showing it’s desirable. My greatest goal for this experiment is to inspire a few city dwellers around the world to think: “You can do that?!? I want to try!”

May 22 was my “Kitty Hawk” moment, in reference to where the Wright Brothers flew. They had to transport their experimental contraptions from Ohio to North Carolina. I have to carry my panel and battery eleven flights to the roof. There are a million ways my experiment isn’t solving all the world’s problems. No one in 1903 could foresee the 747 airliner or a global network of airports either, but the Wright Brothers created a mindset shift that was followed by continual improvement. We overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can achieve in a year.

So too can we continually improve our culture. Using less power means we could shrink our grid, save taxes, and forgo heavily polluting peaker plants. We might also rethink how we eat, where we dedicate our time, and most of all, we can restore lost values like the Golden Rule and environmental stewardship.

When I challenged myself to avoid packaging a decade ago, I secretly wished to find the cure worse than the disease so I wouldn’t have to try living sustainably. Instead, the cure was far better than the disease. It was glorious, fun, and liberating.

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