AMY STRUTZ: This is about trying to take control of how our lives are wired.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: FUTURE OF HOME
TEXT ON SCREEN: A COLLABORATION BY QUARTZ AND RETRO REPORT
NARRATION: In these backlands of northern Guatemala, you can actually see where the energy grid stops. The power line runs by the road until, suddenly, it just doesn’t. And out past this point, people’s homes work without modern conveniences that most urbanites take for granted.
So it may be easy to look at the this family’s homestead and think it’s a picture of the past. Except for one small thing. That little square on the roof there? It actually may be a window into the future of powering homes no matter where you live.
BILL MCKIBBEN: The price of a solar panel has fallen 80 percent in the last decade to the point where now around much of the world it’s the cheapest way to generate energy.
NARRATION: This family’s solar panel powers a cell phone charger, a TV, and, most important, lights at night for the kids.
ODILIA ARANA OCHOA (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): When they did their homework at night, it was with a flashlight or candles. So with the light, everything changed.
NARRATION: A few years ago a company called Kingo started giving out solar panels, batteries and bulbs in rural Guatemala. They make money on how much power people use, billing them on a model similar to pre-paid cell phones.
JUAN RODRIGUEZ (FOUNDER, KINGO ENERGY): Kingo does not compete against the grid. We compete against candles, kerosene, diesel. Our most basic unit costs around $9 a month. That’s around half of what candles cost. We envision these communities leapfrogging the traditional grid.
BILL MCKIBBEN (AUTHOR, ENVIRONMENTALIST): In rural Africa, there’s not a telephone pole to be seen because everybody, their first phone was a cell phone and it just went right over all that, much more importantly the same thing now seems to be happening with energy.
NARRATION: The impact of this growing energy source won’t just be felt in rural areas off the grid. There are likely to be changes in store for places like the United States, where the grid is so omnipresent, it’s taken for granted.
LONNY GRAFMAN (INSTRUCTOR, HUMBOLDT STATE UNIVERSITY): Even though it’s impacting us every day it’s invisible to us. No one knows or hears how much energy they’re using. I can say, oh, the average household in the US uses 30 kilowatt hours per day, but it’s fairly meaningless. And because you don’t see it, and because you don’t hear it, it’s really easy to just use it.
BILL MCKIBBEN: You’ve got a socket on the wall and that’s where electricity comes from. But of course that’s not where electricity comes from. It comes from going someplace and blowing a top off a mountain, collecting the coal and taking it to a big, huge power plant and burning it in a huge boiler and then taking the power that comes out, running it over hundreds of miles of power line. All of that to accomplish, I don’t know, drying your clothes.
NARRATION: And it’s an important thing to pay attention to.
BILL MCKIBBEN: Energy is central to everything that we do, right?
GRETCHEN BAKKE (AUTHOR, “THE GRID”): The electric grid was called the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century. It has these tendrils that just penetrate everything in our world. There’s all these power plants and all these wires and all these poles and all these people and all these cell phones getting charged that are all actually, in fact, part of the same machine.
NARRATION: As more and more of us have hooked into this vast machine, it’s beginning to feel the strain of age. At the same time, the interconnected grids face mounting security risks from hackers and terrorists, not to mention increasingly extreme weather.
GRETCHEN BAKKE: Yeah, you don’t trust the big entity to function the way it should because it doesn’t. Even in places where utilities are working relatively well there’s still power outages all the time.
NARRATION: And even when it is working, this vast machine takes a tremendous amount of fossil fuel to keep going.
BILL MCKIBBEN: All that fossil fuel started creating other problems. It’s not a workable system in the long run if it melts your icecaps as part of its function.
JACQUELINE PATTERSON (ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR, NAACP): Being raised on the south side of Chicago, I lived within 10 miles of three coal-fired power plants which were polluting our community with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, arsenic, lead, all types of toxins.
NARRATION: While the smaller environmental footprint of solar may be a big deal, people who study the technology say that’s not necessarily the only thing that’s transformative about it.
GRETCHEN BAKKE: It’s not that it’s renewable. It’s that it’s distributed. You’ve just taken a power plant and you’ve smashed it with a, you know, like a giant cudgel. And you’ve spread the shards of that power production around everywhere.
NARRATION: But challenges still remain for a power source that relies only on the sun.
LONNY GRAFMAN: The sun is only out a certain amount of hours a day. What you really need is storage. And our storage technologies just aren’t great yet.
NARRATION: And that’s not the only reason people already on the grid aren’t likely to abandon it entirely. As it stands, the grid is still cheap and easy for the people it serves. But backup power that’s less dependent on scarce fossil fuels and generated closer to home could have plenty of appeal for individual power customers, neighborhoods or even towns.
LONNY GRAFMAN: For example, here in Humboldt, we have an excellent mini grid. So we could lose power to our whole coastline and just 10 minutes inland, there’s enough energy to provide the services that you need to keep people healthy until you can rebuild the other systems.
NARRATION: To encourage people to embrace solar, places like Michigan give tax credits which make it more affordable to supplement grid power with solar – or even build homes capable of going off-grid entirely. In the town of Ypsilanti, a lot of these homeowners hire Amy Strutz to do the wiring.
AMY STRUTZ (OWNER, AJ LEO ELECTRIC & SOLAR): Most of the people that I deal with it’s a financial decision. Some people, it’s a green decision. Some people, it’s a combination.
AMY STRUTZ (SPEAKING TO A HOMEOWNER): So you could do up to 29 panels. That’s an 8.55 kilowatt system.
AMY STRUTZ: Right now you’re constantly throwing money at that power bill. This is not a Republican/Democrat, a red state/blue state thing. It’s about being in control. They’re wanting to be responsible for their own power. They’re wanting to be responsible for themselves.
NARRATION: Amy is building a new home of her own around exactly this idea.
AMY STRUTZ: My house will, sort of, be the house of the future, because it’s going to obviously have a lot of solar on it. I love building, I love having the control. I do like control. I’m a control freak, to some extent.
NARRATION: And for rural communities untouched by the grid, making your own energy could mean an entirely different standard of living.
BILL MCKIBBEN: More than a billion people don’t have access to electricity, which means they don’t have access to the world that you and I inhabit. A hundred years from now people will look back and shake their heads in wonder at the thought that people could be deprived of energy simply because they were poor. That’s crazy. And it’s not going to happen now because the solar panel is going to intervene.
LONNY GRAFMAN: So, once you have distributed renewable energy, inexpensive and distributed high-speed internet, you can do anything in a rural community.
NARRATION: As soon as it’s possible, Odilia Arana Ochoa has her sights set on getting one more appliance for her family. A refrigerator. And in the future, she hopes her kids won’t have to stop there.
ODILIA ARANA OCHOA (TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH): There should be more energy, more knowledge, more connections. Because it is excellent now, but we need a bit more.
LONNY GRAFMAN: What is the future of home, I think that it’s up for communities and individuals to decide. And what excites me is being part of creating a world where communities have the resources they need in order to invent what their homes are going to look like. To invent what their infrastructure is going to look like.