SMonday, May 22 was the last day my apartment was connected to the Manhattan power grid. That morning, I used my pressure cooker — powered by portable solar panels I’d bought on Craigslist and carried to my roof to recharge — to cook a pot of stew. Then I decided to go further: not using the electricity grid for a month. I unplugged everything: my laptop, my phone, my toaster, my microwave, my floor lamps. Then, to make sure, I unplugged the main circuit breaker, physically cutting my apartment off the grid.
Frankly, I didn’t think I could last three days. Sure, people go off-grid in the woods, but I’m an executive coach and assistant professor of leadership at New York University and I’m 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 was going to face or if I could solve them. I may have a degree in astrophysics which helps me understand the principles of power and energy, but I had no practical experience using solar energy. But now I’m in my sixth month of living off the grid in my studio, and rather than the sacrifice of time, money, isolation, or convenience I expected, I’ve found joy and freedom. .
More than half the world lives in cities. If, like me up until this experience, they think it’s impossible to pollute less, 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 experience out of the blue. I trace its roots back to another experience ten years ago: starting to take responsibility for my own waste. I challenged myself not to buy packaged food for a week. To date, the combination of avoiding both packaged food and deliveries, as well as composting, has kept my waste to a bare minimum: in December 2019, I emptied my waste down the chute in my apartment building – I haven’t filled a whole new bag yet from, and I only produced one recycle charge. More important than the physical outcome, where I expected deprivation, I found it improved my life. Where else in life could I find this pattern?
My change in mentality led to a process of continuous improvement. In 2016, I decided to stop flying after learning that pollution from a return flight between London and Los Angeles was equivalent to about a year of driving. A article on other cultures refrigerating less and enjoying healthier, less polluting food prompted me to unplug my refrigerator in December 2019. I couldn’t see how I could survive a week without refrigeration, but I spent three months , almost next Seven. The third time, in September 2021, I aimed for eight months, but I’m going anyway. The joy of the experience sparked the idea of unplugging my whole apartment.
It’s trickier than you think. After my board was reluctant to accept a free compost bin from the city, I doubted they would allow a solar panel to be installed on the roof of the building. So I bought foldable solar panels and a laptop battery. The biggest challenge is when it rains for several days in a row, which limits my ability to recharge my battery. In times like these, making sure I didn’t miss any client meetings or other calls meant meticulously planning when I would go to the rooftop to recharge, enjoy work at NYU (plugging in my laptop and cellphone at work was my only trick), recharge when the clouds have dissipated, avoiding watching energy-intensive videos when possible, and favoring salads and other uncooked foods.
My solar and battery power setup only generate 200 watts and 576 watt hours respectively. It takes four hours to fully charge the battery on a clear day with the sun at its zenith. This charge is enough to power the pressure cooker one charge, 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 in all I have to charge the batteries about four or five times a week.
My days quickly revolved around the sun when it was shining and trips to NYU when it wasn’t. By waking up before dawn, around 5am in the summer, I avoided the daytime heat and reduced my need for light. I started reading more; avoiding the computer meant I wrote more by hand; and practiced exercise and meditation routines. I timed my trips to the rooftop with my work meetings and calls – taking the stairs instead of the elevator. During the 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 for cooking and eating. I always use the hot water in my building. I don’t use my gas stove. The sunset started to tire me more and I fell asleep faster. I didn’t use any air conditioning and I admit I woke up sweating on some of the hottest nights.
Food required planning but not much extra time once I had developed the skills including how to ferment. I had to sort through each load of groceries: spinach wilts quickly and doesn’t ferment well, so I had to eat it quickly. Tomatoes last up to a week. Apples stay good for weeks. Potatoes and squash can last for months. Green vegetables like cabbage and kale ferment well and store for months. Cereals and dried beans last forever.
It was already satisfying to see my electricity bills drop to less than $2 (not including connection fees and taxes) after unplugging the fridge. Now they are down to zero. It’s even more satisfying to see my monthly energy consumption at 0 kWh. (However, I refrained from closing my account completely.)
If you had asked me what was the best way to solve global environmental crises before I started this journey ten years ago, I would have said that individual actions don’t matter, only governments and corporations can make a difference at the scale we need, and the related reasons not to act. But systemic change begins with personal change. Governments and companies taking action are not the starting line; it’s the end of a marathon of hard but rewarding work. Their game is also the start of a new marathon.
My off-grid experience has since taught me the challenges of intermittent power, but also law, addiction, resilience, attitude, humility and heart. Ultimately, it strengthened my connection to humanity and nature, and underscored what is at stake.
My motivation for starting this trip was only partly to reduce my pollution. I find that sustainability lacks leadership. A lot of people teach numbers and tell people what to do, but I don’t believe that’s leadership. You can’t get someone to live by values that you live the opposite of. We lack models living sustainably, showing that it is desirable. My biggest goal for this experiment is to get a few city dwellers around the world thinking, “Can you do that?!? I want to try!”
May 22 was my “Kitty Hawk” moment, in reference to where the Wright Brothers has stolen. They had to transport their experimental machines from Ohio to North Carolina. I have to carry my panel and my battery eleven flights on the roof. There are a million reasons why my experience doesn’t solve all the problems in the world. Nor could anyone in 1903 foresee the 747 airliner or a global network of airports, but the Wright Brothers created a shift in mindset that was followed by continuous improvement. We overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a year.
We can also continually improve our culture. Using less energy means we could reduce our grid, save taxes and give up heavily polluting plants. We could also rethink how we eat, where we spend our time, and most importantly, we can restore lost values like the Golden Rule and environmental stewardship.
When I challenged myself to avoid packaging ten years ago, I secretly wanted to find the cure worse than the disease so I wouldn’t have to try to live sustainably. Instead, the cure was much better than the disease. It was glorious, fun and liberating.
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