The Illustion of Getting Off the Grid
August 2015

Recently I purchased a solar panel system for my home and I've been sharing my experience with my neighbors.  A common component of many of these conversations is some sort of comment about "getting off the grid".  As I have reflected on these comments, I realized that solar panels have been attached to a romanticism of independence and escapism, the idea that solar panels not only provide electricity, but a form of independence that many folks long for.  I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, but I can't help to reflect how separated from reality these feeling are.  Solar panels don't bring independence from the grid, in truth it's the opposite: you will never be more attached to the grid than once your solar system becomes operational.

Let's use my case as an example.  My system has been operational for about a month now, and I have tracked my production and energy usage closely during this time.  Of all the energy my solar cells produce, I only use just under a third of it.  The rest is fed onto the grid.  In fact, two-thirds of the energy my house uses comes right off the grid.  That's hardly independence.  To make the whole thing work economically, it requires the ability to sell my excess power.

That's the amazing thing about solar right now.  The big talking point around solar is the 30% federal tax rebate that is set to expire at the end of 2016.  In this tax break, if you purchase your own system, you can get up to 30% of the cost back in a refund from the federal government, assuming you paid that much in taxes to begin with.  It's a nice deal, but hardly the subsidy that is known as Net Metering.  In fact, for many, solar is a good investment with or without the federal tax break, but without Net Metering it's a deal breaker.

Net Metering is the agreement with the utility, often driven by regulatory help, which allows owners of solar panel system to transfer excess electricity onto the grid for others to use.  Essentially solar panel owners become producers of energy, just like a coal, nuclear, or other type of plants.  The difference is the dollar value of the energy "sold" to the system.  If a coal plant sells their energy to the grid, that operation might get 4 cents for every kilowatt hour sold.  But in Net Metering, the owner doesn't get paid but gets credits that go against the energy they use, on a one-to-one basis.  The end result is that the system owner only pays for energy based on net usage, or what they bought from the grid minus what they sold.  In essence, the owner is getting paid as much as 15 cents or more per kilowatt hour, not the market rate which can be a quarter or less than that.  It's a sweet deal for the system owner, so maybe being connected to the grid isn't so bad after all.

Net Metering is what makes solar an attractive investment, and without it solar power would simply go away for residential considerations, even with the federal tax break in place.  Net Metering is also critical, because storage of energy is so rudimentary that it's near impossible to create a system that can be truly independent from the grid.  Telsa has recently announced an economic breakthrough in home energy storage, but even with that, it's near impossible to run an A/C system in the evening hours without a little help from the grid.
Given all this, it's hard not to wonder: what's so bad about the grid anyway?  After all, our water and sewage systems are also a grid, and no one seems to complain about them like they do with electricity.  I think it all comes down to two things: high prices and the reliability and vulnerability of the system.

If I had to guess, I'd imagine that what really drives people to want to "get off the grid" are folks who are tired of paying a lot for electricity.  PG&E rates in particular are quite high compared to the rest of the country, and that probably doesn't help people to feel warm and fuzzy toward their utility.  It should be noted though, that PG&E sources it's energy from a higher rate of renewables and less coal that most other utilities, and this factors into the price.  We are paying a premium for energy, but we're doing so because it is better for the environment.  Still, the sting of a high bill is hard to get over and it's natural to want to find an alternative.  Solar feeds well into this sentiment, because not only do you get to escape those high bills, but you can do so while providing clean energy.

The nature of the grid probably factors into many folks thinking as well.  Whether we are talking about brown-outs or the vulnerability of the system to a terrorist attack or really bad weather, there's a sense that maybe the answer is local generation and distribution of energy, away from our highly networked and complex system.  This seems to drive that sense of independence of getting off the grid.

Regardless, I think the grid is a good thing, although likely in need of restructuring as time goes on.  Utilities are always in a bad position, often stuck in an either doing what they were expected to do to begin with, or not delivering on what people want.  It's hard to wow people in a position like that.  Yet, it's just as easy to overlook the advancements made in the system, and the service these vendors do provide.

I could go on about these things, but I will just offer one example: smart meters.  Smart meters have been used by utilities to replace traditional meters and have resulted in providing data to customers that had previously been either impossible or took too much effort to obtain.  I have a smart meter at my home, and can tell at any point what energy I have used or sold to the system.  I even have an app for that on my smartphone.  There's nothing like that for the water system, and in this time of drought, having that level of knowledge about water usage would really come in handy.

In my mind, it's not about getting off the grid, but about making the grid better, and utilities are already moving in this direction.  Of course there is a lot of work to go and it's not clear that there is a vision of what the right model is.  But then again, that's the exciting part about all of this.  The future isn't about getting off the grid but making it work better for us, and in that sense, there is much reason for optimism.  Solar panels and Net Metering are an example of this in action, although not an economically sustainable one from the utility's point of view.  That leaves a lot of tough decisions before us, but exciting ones as well.  Just as long as we realize that the answer isn't to simply long to disengage.

Surface Pro 3: Part Laptop, Part Tablet, All Slamma Jamma
August 2014

For a few years now, Microsoft has been touting its Surface Line of hybrid tablet/laptop devices.  They've done this through a series of simply terrible commercials where users dance around in choreographed fashion, often balancing the device in the process.  It's eye catching, certainly, but in the wrong kind of way.  Those adverts, coupled with commentary of the devices, caused me to steer clear of ever wanting one.  But through a sequence of events that I won't describe here, I have ended up owning a Surface Pro 3 device.  And guess what, I love it.

I'm going to break this review into two pieces, because the discussion of the device changes dramatically depending on how it is used.  Let's start looking at it as a laptop computer.

Part Laptop

The Surface Pro series are actually full blown computers.  They have computer grade processors and a full version of Windows.  Anything you can do on a normal computer, you can do on this device.  It's not a gaming rig, but then again, few computers are.  For web browsing, office work, and doing finances, this is a fully functional machine.

The screen is 12 inches to the diagonal, which places it in the range of many of today's top notebook computers.  The Surface does not come with a keyboard, but it would be silly not to buy one, even though a type keyboard costs a full $130.  It's worth it though.  This is a full keyboard that also serves as a cover for the screen when not in use.  They keys are comfortable to type on, and the touchpad never gets in the way.  The keyboard has a little give, but is generally quite sturdy, and can be deployed in an angled fashion unlike laptops that are laid out flat.  All of this lends to a comfortable typing experience without weighting the device down.  In fact, the tablet and keyboard combined weigh over two pounds, -- another advantage over traditional notebook computers.

There is a USB port for connecting devices like a mouse.  However, with touchscreen capability, and the type cover track pad, using a mouse isn't required.

Every surface device has a kickstand, and the Pro 3's is the best ever.  You can set the screen to pretty much any angle you want.  You would think the kickstand might dig into your legs when setting it on your lap, but it doesn't.  Everything about the computer's hardware screams first class.  It had better given the price, but we'll get to that later.

This is a computer that is designed for mobile work.  In sleep mode, it takes 25 seconds of booting until you are ready to go, including time to enter a password.  Shutting the device down is even faster; either close the type cover or press the power button, and then retract the kickstand.  That's it.  In 3 seconds this computer is ready to be stowed away.  Easy on, easy off, easy to carry, there just isn't much to dislike about this device as a laptop.

With an additional dock, you can also use the Surface as a desktop replacement.  I'm not sure if I would go that far.  Desktop setups are fairly cheap and can provide more power, but it's good to know the option is there if needed.  The only real limitation of the Surface Pro 3 as a computer, from a performance point of view, is around high-end gaming.  The graphics prowess is simply limited on this device.  But outside of that, I was able to run Microsoft Office, do computer aided design via the Lego Design Drawer tool, conduct web browsing, play mobile game apps, and watch Netflix with no performance issues at all.

Part Tablet

The Surface Pro 3 as a tablet is a much more mixed proposition.  On one hand, the screen size is great.  Twelve inches is fantastic for watching videos, and the screen is sharp and pleasant to look at.  A great screen is critical for a good tablet, but so is weight.  Without the type cover, the Surface Pro 3 is 1.75 pounds.  For what it is, that's an incredible achievement, but while holding it with one hand you easily notice the weight.  Two handed operation is fine, but I like to read using one hand, and sometimes the weight of the device gets in the way of doing that comfortably.

Then there is the app store.  In order of size, iOS has the biggest store, Android is next, and Windows comes in third.  The difference between the selection between iOS and Android is quite small, with casual gaming more prominent in the former.  The gap between Android and Windows is fairly pronounced, so you can't always find apps for Windows that you can find on the other two systems.  Zite is an example of this.  But for the most part, the big names you expect to see in any app store are present. 

It's worth noting that the type cover is connected by magnets and can be removed easily with minimal fuss, while the chances of it dropping off accidentally are virtually zero.  Windows 8 features apps fairly well, and on the sharp large screen games like Angry Birds really come alive.  Finally, the Surface 3 comes with a nicely sized pen to take notes on the tablet.  This is leap forward from styluses that you need to use with most Apple and Android tablets, and is a huge win for the device.  It even features palm rejection where you can place your hand on the screen to rest without registering an input.  Nice.

Ultimately though, the weight and app store make the Surface Pro 3's foray into tablet space a somewhat limiting one.  The gaps in the apps store are forgivable if the device were easy to hold in one hand, but the combination of issues are tough to ignore.

Things that Impact Both Forms

The battery life of the device is really mixed.  I've had sessions where I was pacing for over 9 hours of use, and another session where I was pacing for just under 5 hours of use.  The differences in battery drain seem to stem from the type of programs or applications I used.  Microsoft Office, web browsing, and reading apps took little battery power, while the Lego Design Drawer and a few games sucked a lot more juice.  In sleep mode, the device seems to last around a week before a recharge is needed.

Windows 8.1 makes sense on a tablet and notebook computer.  I have few complaints about the operating system.  The transition from Metro interface to desktop interface can be slightly jarring though.  It's not always clear which mode you need to be in to close a program, for example, but these are minor drawbacks.  Windows 8.1 is a nice change of pace from iOS and Android.  I wouldn't say Windows is better than either of its competitors, but I wouldn't call it worse either.

Finally, a conversation about the Surface Pro 3 would not be complete unless we talked about the price.  Yes, this is an expensive piece of equipment.  The device I am reviewing costs over $1100 when you throw in the essential type cover keyboard.  Generally, the price is consistent, albeit a bit more expensive, than high end comparable notebook computers like the Macbook Air.  Given the versatility of the device, the price seems justified, but you would need to take advantage of that versatility in order for the pricing to make more sense.  The Surface Pro 3 can function as a notebook, a tablet, or even a desktop computer.  If you were considering buying this, and were going to use it for two of those forms, then I don't think the pricing is unreasonable at all.  But if you would only use the device for one function, say as a laptop only, then the purchase becomes a much tougher decision.


It's a killer as a laptop, and pretty good as a tablet.  I can highly recommend this device as the former, but am guarded by recommending it for the latter.  But overall, I think this is a good buy if you have the money and it won't be your primary tablet.  If the weight issue were resolved, then I could recommend this as a replacement for both devices, but we just aren't there yet.

Having said that, the device is super cool and useful.  The mobility is unparalleled for a notebook computer, and the fact that it also moonlights as a tablet is pretty slick.  It looks fantastic too.  This is a purchase I am happy I made.


* Thoughts on the iPad, Three Weeks Later (June 2010)
* The Entertainment Dollar and the iPad (June 2010)
* This Town's Big Enough For the Three of Us (June 2010)
* My Son is Three and He Doesn't Have a Job Yet (June 2010)
* Welcome to the Internet, How May We Alienate You? (July 2010)
* Wait!  It's Not Too Late to Have a Crazy Opinion About the LeBron Decision! (July 2010)
* Let's Agree To Not Identify That We Disagree (July 2010)
* Everything Is Going To Hell!  Oh, Wait, No It's Not (July 2010)
* Pieces of Great! (August 2010)
* I Would Like To Announce My Continued Retirement From Fantasy Football (August 2010)
* American Sports Are More Socialist, European Sports Are More Free Market - How About That! (August 2010)
* Playstation Move - The Renewal of Hope (September 2010)
* Things That Have Changed For the Better (September 2010)
* Why I'm Not Getting the IPad 2 (March 2011)
* My Son is 4 and He Has Way Too Much Attitude (June 2011)
* Fear the Cloud (June 2011)
* My Son is 5 and He Is Assuming Control (May 2012)
* I Have Seen the Future, And It Is Good! (May 2012)
* If I Win This Election, Aw Hell, Just Vote For Me, Will Ya? (September 2012)
* The Death of the Gaming Console.  You're Kidding Right? (March 2013)
* Note 10.1 2014 vs. iPad Air: Who Reigns Supreme? (November 2013)
* Will the Real Galaxy Gear Please Step Forward? (February 2014)
* 16 Years an Arsenal Fan (May 2014)
* Jeff's Guide to Personal Health Trackers (July 2014)
* Surface Pro 3: Part Notebook, Part Tablet, All Slamma Jamma (August 2014)
* The Terrible, Terrible Costs of Skylanders (January 2015)
* The Illustion of Getting Off the Grid (August 2015)
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