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What if Whole Communities Were Willing to Live Off-Grid?

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The ferocity of the storms were hard to ignore in the five years we lived in Washington, D.C.

Summer or winter, big storms would seem to arise out of nowhere, causing a lot of destruction, human and otherwise, throughout the U.S. Northeast.

Scores would lose power during these weather events. Days turned to weeks before electricity would return to the cold and dark, or stifling and dark, homes.

In the process people got mighty fed up with the power utilities. Many felt the profit-making behemoths were stingy about getting work crews out to put things right. On top of this, sometimes gas stations would be knocked out, further stranding residents in a 21st century apocalyptic scenario.

Yet you could argue that utilities were really just the middlemen in all this. They were just trying to make a profit and keep the lights on at the same time. And heck, are they to blame for nature's wild path of late?

But here's a solution. What if we got rid of the middleman? That broker who stands between you and the power source. After all, this is a trend revolutionizing society over the last few years -- from the travel agent to the bricks and mortar bank. A host of intermediaries have been replaced by the computer on your desktop or in your hand.

To get rid of utilities you need to have your own power sources, such as solar and wind. Motley Fool and Bloomberg, among others are raising the idea in recent articles, examining whether the big U.S. utilities are vulnerable in the rapidly changing marketplace where consumers can increasingly develop their own energy sources and opt out of the grid. NRG, a massive U.S. power company, was singled out as a company going straight to the consumer and making an end-run around the traditional utilities.

From the Bloomberg article:

"Bypassing its utility clients, NRG is installing solar panels on rooftops of homes and businesses and in the future will offer natural gas-fired generators to customers to kick in when the sun goes down, Chief Executive Officer David Crane said in an interview.

"Consumers are realizing "they don't need the power industry at all," Crane, 54, said in an interview at this year's MIT Energy Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "That is ultimately where big parts of the country go."

Where are we heading with all this? Let's think of some of the possibilities.

It's great if a house can have its own solar panels and even micro wind turbines to generate power. And a household can always sell power back into the grid. But that's kind of boring: you are still working with the man (or the grid as it may be).

What if a group of home owners in a neighborhood got together to build their own power sources. And instead of selling excess goodies back into the system, what about storing the power in batteries. Batteries, however, are expensive. But what if the power was stored in cars owned by the homeowners? What if the power was used to keep the lights going at a community center or an old age home?

What if this concept was used at an office park and excess power was stored in a fleet of commercial vehicles? Power could also be stored in battery stations where a car running low on juice could swap out for a new battery.

Such communities and office complexes would offer clean energy, sure. But because it would be disconnected from the grid, it might be quicker to get up and running after a big storm -- while not so well endowed homes and businesses would still be awaiting for the big truck to arrive from the power utility.

It's good to dream. But perhaps it's the model we should be implementing because those weather events look to be getting worse and unlikely to get better, ever.

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