Living off the grid, in the city

By Joe Pinsker, 11 Aug 2016, cross-posted from The Atlantic

If one’s kitchen hints at what one values in life, it’s pretty clear what Keya Chatterjee’s priorities are. The refrigerator she picked out is not the kind that would appear in most catalogs—her deep, extremely energy-efficient fridge is optimized for use on a boat, and is often used by doctors to store vaccines. Some time ago, she deemed her oven overly wasteful and it has since been unplugged. It is now just another part of the counter, on which a plug-in burner sits.

The logistical reason Chatterjee’s kitchen uses so little electricity stands in her compact backyard in Southwest Washington, D.C. It’s a set of solar panels—the source of nearly all the power for the house that Chatterjee, the executive director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, a nonprofit, shares with her husband and her son. The panels generate less electricity than most American households use in a day, but Chatterjee and her family have adjusted their energy use so that it is often plenty for their extremely pared-down needs. On the occasions that it isn’t, they buy modest amounts of electricity from the grid.

The rest of their home is arranged according to this efficient logic. On top of one of the house’s toilets, there is a small, custom-built sink that runs, after each flush, with the clean water that is about to refill the toilet. The fans throughout her house are “tenfold” more efficient than the next most efficient model, she says—a characterization I have no trouble taking her word on, given that instead of selecting them based on their Energy Star rating, she went directly to the EPA’s website and pored over the spreadsheets that detailed the performance of each model.

Chatterjee, who while working at NASA earlier in her career grew alarmed about climate change, started living like this about seven years ago. In the winter of 2009, she says she and her husband were receiving $300 electric bills—far more than their modest consumption should merit, she thought—and called the utility constantly, explaining that something must be wrong. Eventually, Chatterjee got tired of arguing and asked to have her power shut off, as well as her heat—in the middle of winter. For the next few months, she and her husband spent nights sharing a queen-size sleeping bag with hot water bottles stuffed into it.

In fact, Chatterjee and her husband still use that strategy to make it through winters, when “it’s very uncommon for us to turn on the heat,” she says. Her husband, Andrew Kravetz, says that their way of life has some similarities with being outdoors. “Just like a camping trip, sometimes you have to be creative and figure out solutions to things that are maybe a little bit inconvenient, but you deal with them,” he told The Atlantic in a video about his family’s lifestyle, which can be seen below.