Hands-on Activity: Power to the People

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

The Nellis Solar Power Plant containing about 70,000 solar panels generating 14 megawatts of solar power located within Nellis Air Force Base, northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.
Students examine how people live "off the grid"
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Giant_photovoltaic_array.jpg


Students read and evaluate descriptions of how people live "off the grid" using solar power and come to understand better the degree to which that lifestyle is or is not truly independent of technological, economic and cultural infrastructure and resources. In the process, students develop a deeper appreciation of the meaning of "community" and the need for human connection. This activity is geared towards fifth-grade and older students and Internet research capabilities are required. Portions of this activity may be appropriate with younger students.

Engineering Connection

Engineers help develop renewable energy technologies that are often used by people living "off the grid." Solar, hydro and wind technologies have been developed by engineers to create the power we need to live in a clean environment. Water technologies have been developed for sanitation, as well as power generation for lighting and heating. Solar and wind technologies are also renewable energy sources that engineers develop into useful applications.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Pre-Req Knowledge

A basic knowledge of renewable energy, which can be obtained through Energy unit, Lessons 2, 7 (wind), 8 (water) and 9 (solar).

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Write stories, letters and reports with greater detail and supporting material.
  • Choose vocabulary and figures of speech that communicate clearly.
  • Draft, revise, edit and proofread for a legible final copy.
  • Apply skills in analysis, synthesis, evaluation and explanation to their writing and speaking.

Materials List

  • Paper and pencils
  • Access to the Internet


Photo of a sunny entry room in a residential home.
No utility bills! Active and passive solar technologies plus a wood stove and propane backup generator help this house to be "off the grid."
Copyright © U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/

The power grid is a system of high tension cables by which electrical power is distributed throughout a region. The local power grid brings electricity to our homes, schools, stores and streets. In the literacy activities for Energy unit, Lesson 4 (Blackout!, The Grid), you learned about the national power grid. In this activity, you will learn about people who dare to disconnect from that grid and go it alone. Their reward? A feeling of independence and freedom from power outages and blackouts. No more ice cream melting in the refrigerator if the power goes out!

Photo showing south-facing windows of a modern family home.
This Colorado home obtains 90% of its winter heating requirements from the sun. Solar features include a Trombe wall, direct gain and a sunspace.
Copyright © U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/

But what does it mean, exactly, to live off the grid? Originally, it meant disconnecting from the local electric utility (the interconnected national power grid itself) and generating power using some alternative means, such as solar or wind power or a combination. Now the term has been extended to mean you also disconnect from the gas and water utilities as well as the sewage system to collect your own water and process your own household waste.

As you will learn in this activity, there are degrees of freedom in being off-grid. Does it mean you are really independent? Will your parents still pay an electric bill? Will you be able to listen to TV whenever you want or get on the computer? Let's check with some people who have been living off the grid for years and see what life as an off-gridder is really like.

Photo of shiny, blue panels covering the flat roof of a gas station canopy.
Grid-connected, roof-mounted photovoltaic panels atop this gas station in the UK generate electricity to power the pumps and lights under the canopy. Even if grid power is interrupted, the petrol pumps remain fully operational.
Copyright © U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/


Alternative energy: Energy derived from sources that do not use up natural resources or harm the environment.

Blackout: Lack of illumination caused by an electrical power failure; the failure of electric power for a general region.

Community: A body of people having common rights, privileges or interests, or living in the same place under the same laws and regulations.

Conspicuous conservation: Using technology to live more frugally and to conserve resources. Source: Wordspy.com

Green roof: A roof that is covered with plants, particularly one in which special membranes and other layers serve to protect the rooftop and hold the plants and soil in place. Source: Wordspy.com

Infrastructure: The basic facilities, services and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices and prisons.

Mainstream: (noun) The prevailing current of thought, influence or activity. (adjective) Representing the widely- or commonly-accepted attitudes, values and practices of a society or group.

Net metering: Tracking a building's electricity use as the net difference between the power consumed via the public utility grid less the power generated using solar or wind energy. Source: Wordspy.com

Nonrenewable energy: Energy from sources that are used faster than they can be created. Sources include oil [petroleum], natural gas, coal and uranium [nuclear].

Off the grid (also off-grid): Relating to a person, family, dwelling or community that no longer requires connections to utilities, especially the electricity and water supplies and the sewage system. Source: Wordspy.com

Power grid: A network of electric power lines and associated equipment used to transmit and distribute electricity over a geographic area. The network of transmission lines that link all generating plants in a region with local distribution networks to help maximize service reliability.

Renewable energy: Energy that is made from sources that can be regenerated. Sources include solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, ocean and hydro (water).

Self-generation: Generating one's own electricity with an on-site generator. Source: Wordspy.com


Before the Activity

  • This is an individual activity with class discussion.
  • Print some images showing examples of off the grid homes and businesses. Suggestions: http://www.mishalov.com/Off_The_Grid.html (in California, solar cells and sod roof), http://www.monolithic.com/gallery/homes/garlock/. (in Colorado, dome house), and http://www.eere.energy.gov/solar/ (Solar Energy Technology Program, U.S. Department of Energy, images showing different applications)


Learn as much as you can about what life off the grid is really like. Do some background reading and research. Begin with these online sources (also see the References section):

  • Off the Grid Living, http://www.offgrid.cjb.net, an excellent resource that includes lots of stories of people who live off the grid
  • Off the Grid Homes News Archive, http://www.kansasenergy.org/offthegrid.htm, more examples of people living off the grid
Photo of a small, modern home with photovoltaic panels on its angled rooftop.
    The winning 2002 Solar Decathlon house designed by engineering and architecture students at the University of Colorado.
    Copyright © U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eere.energy.gov/
  • Off the Grid Competition: The U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, http://www.eere.energy.gov/, is an international competition among college teams to design the most attractive and effective solar-powered house. Each team builds a uniquely designed 500- to 800-sq ft. (46-74 sq m) house that integrates aesthetics and modern conveniences with maximum energy production and optimal efficiency. The 2002 winning team, from the University of Colorado (), designed their house to be more like an everyday American home than a perfectly designed experimental solar house. Said CU student Matthew Henry, "We want people to realize that solar design can look good and doesn't need to be the dated designs we all remember from the '70s." The result was a "beautiful house that also happened to be highly efficient and solar-powered," said Henry. The 2005 winning team, also from the University of Colorado, built an 800 sq ft. (74 sq m) house that produces more than enough energy for its own heat and electricity needs and is comfortable enough to support today's lifestyle needs (laundry, home office, cooking, television, hot water, vehicle). Research the creative alternative energy approaches, bio-based materials and recycled or re-used materials the engineering and architecture students incorporated to meet their objective of low-to-no petroleum to minimize overall energy use and environmental impact. Can houses like this make "off the grid" mainstream?

Photograph of a modern mobile-home-size structure in front of a huge university building.
The winning 2005 Solar Decathlon house on display on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus.
Copyright © Denise Carlson, ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

Also, look at the news articles in the References section or do your own search using the Google Newsdesk.


What does it really mean to be "off the grid"? Is it possible to be entirely disconnected from the infrastructure of the community in which one lives? Columnist Ed Quillen of the Denver Post doesn't think so:

[Off the grid] is how one of my grandfathers lived, up until he died in 1965, on his two-section homestead 17 miles northeast of Bill, Wyoming, which had the closest paved road, electric line and telephone.

But even if he wasn't on an electric grid, he still had light from Coleman lanterns, which burned white gas, which came from somewhere else via an intricate system of wells, pumps, pipes, refineries and distributors. He heated with coal that he had to get somewhere. He ate some of the beef he raised, but he also bought canned vegetables and milk somewhere. He needed propane for his refrigerator and batteries for his radio.

In that respect, he wasn't that different from people I know now who say they're "off the grid," but actually connect to a different kind of grid — one that supplies chain-saw gasoline, clothes, vegetables and lead-acid storage batteries. Even the mountain men of yore gathered at an annual rendezvous so they could acquire steel traps and bullet lead. They weren't exactly "off the grid" either.

So I don't know that "off the grid" really means much in the utility context. Even if you don't have an electric bill every month, you're still connected to big systems of production and distribution.

Source: Ed Quillen. "Where is 'off the grid'?" DenverPost.com. Published July 20, 2004.

Based on the stories you have read about people living off the grid, what do you think? Is anyone truly disconnected from "big systems of production and distribution"?


Write an essay answering one of the following questions:

  • Why it really is possible to live off the grid?
  • Why it really is not possible to live off the grid?

In making your case, consider some of these questions:

  • Is being off the grid an all-or-nothing proposition? Are there degrees of independence?
  • What would you say is the minimum requirement to be considered living off-grid?
  • What are some ways people who live off-grid are still directly or indirectly dependent on the broader community? Provide some examples.
  • If you are self-generating enough energy to meet your own needs and have surplus power that you sell back to the utility ( net metering), are you really living off-grid? What is the difference between being connected and being independent? Can you still be independent while being connected? What are some advantages of net metering for the off-gridder?
  • In what ways is living off-grid a political or philosophical statement? What does conspicuous conservation imply?
  • What do off-gridders seem to value most about the way they live? What are the greatest rewards?
  • What do off-gridders like least about their lifestyle? What are the most difficult challenges?
  • What does it mean to be part of a community? Do off-gridders tend to lose contact with the wider community or do they strive even harder to be a part of a community?
  • How would you like living off-grid? What might you have to give up? What do you think you might gain from the experience?
  • It is difficult to imagine, but what if independent sources of alternative energy one day became readily available and affordable and virtually everyone could live off-grid? What would the world be like? In what ways would life be better? In what ways perhaps worse? In what ways would people still need each other?

Troubleshooting Tips

Internet links to news articles can quickly become outdated. If any of the links provided in the References section is no longer available, just do keyword searches on one of these search terms or a combination at www.google.com under the "News" tab for current articles: "off the grid," "alternative energy," "renewable energy," etc.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Call-Out Questions/Quiz: Use call-out questions and a vocabulary quiz to reinforce the basic concepts and vocabulary introduced during the Observing activity.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Call-Out Questions: Use call-out questions during the Thinking discussion to test students' understanding of the concepts.

Post-Activity Assessment

Writing: The students' essays demonstrate their understanding of the concepts.

Activity Extensions

Off-Gridding as a Way of Life: Identify someone in your local community who is living off-grid and see if you can arrange a class visit to see first-hand what off-grid living is like. As you have seen, off-gridders enjoy sharing their experience and teaching others what they have learned the hard way. Come prepared with lots of questions, based on what you have learned in this activity.

Frontier House/Colonial House: For an experience of really living off-grid, go back to a time when there was no grid at all! Check out "reality TV" at its finest: the fascinating PBS "House" series of programs, including "Frontier House" http://www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierhouse/ and "Colonial House" http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/ . Try staging your own Frontier House or Colonial House adventure in living before the days when electricity and other conveniences of life were not readily available. Lesson plans and other teacher resources are provided for both series.

Be a Word Spy! The definition for "off the grid" in this lesson is taken from Word Spy, http://www.wordspy.com , a "website is devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases." Click on the link for "off the grid" http://www.wordspy.com/words/offthegrid.asp and then click on the words in "Related Words" (to the right) to increase your vocabulary of current expressions associated in some way with living off the grid. What is darking? What's an earthship? What's a phantom load? Next, explore Word Spy for definitions of other new phrases, not necessarily related to living off the grid. For starters try sedentary death syndrome, treeware, screenager, Elvis year, Google bombing. Have fun exploring new expressions on your own. Record some of these colorful words and phrases in your journal. Word Spy is a great resource for writers.

Activity Scaling

  • The essay can be scaled in terms of format, from three-paragraph to five-paragraph, and conceptual challenge. It can be a simple descriptive essay or make an argument.


Alternative Energy Store. Accessed November 30, 2005. (Retail store) www.altenergystore.com
Alternative Energy Tips: Sustainable, Off-the-Grid and Backup Power, Biofuel, Generators, Hydro, PV, Solar, Wind Electricity, etc. Knowledge Hound, The How-To Hunter, LLC. www.knowledgehound.com/topics/altenerg.htm Accessed November 30, 2005.
Brown, Patricia Leigh. Off the Grid: "Home-Grown Energy's Time to Shine." Published January 24, 2001. New York Times. www.mishalov.com/Off_The_Grid.html Accessed November 30, 2005. (Story and photos of off the grid solar house with green roof)
Capehart, Barney L. Banner. Distributed Energy Resources (DER). Updated June 7, 2005. Whole Building Design Guide, National Institute of Building Sciences. www.wbdg.org/resources/der.php Accessed November 30, 2005. (Excellent, concise introduction to DER with case studies showing benefits of small DE installations by an engineering professor at the University of Florida)
Connecting Your Solar Electric System to the Utility Grid. Solar Electric, Better Building Series, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). www.nrel.gov/docs/fy02osti/31687.pdf Accessed September 18, 2006.
Culham, Ruth. Four Square: The Total Writing Classroom for Grades 5-9. Carthage, IL: Teaching & Learning Company, 1999. (Introduces the four-paragraph essay) CWADE Presentations, Colorado Wind & Distributed Energy: Renewables for Rural Prosperity. April 13-14, 2004. Governor's Office of Energy Management & Conservation, Colorado. www.state.co.us/oemc/events/cwade/2004/presentations.htm Accessed November 30, 2005. (PDF versions of presentations given at the 2004 CWADE conference. Interesting, easy to follow presentations focusing mainly on wind, with attention to some other forms of DER. Highly recommended.)
Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed November 30, 2005. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation)
Gould, Judith S. and Evan Jay Gould. 6 + 1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide (Grades 3 and Up) Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 2003. (The most popular text for teaching writing in elementary school)
Home Power Magazine: The Hands-On Journal of Home-Made Power. Home Power, Inc. www.homepower.com Accessed November 30, 2005. (Home Power magazine. Highly recommended.)
Kirby, David. "It's almost always greener living off the energy grid. Published November 16, 2002. New York Times, c/o San Francisco Chronicle. www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2002/11/16/HO238407.DTL Accessed November 30, 2005.
Make Your Own Clean Electricity: Connecting Your System to the Electricity Grid, Energy Savers, A Consumer's Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Updated September 12, 2005. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_home/electricity/index.cfm/mytopic=10510 Accessed November 30, 2005.
Off-the-Grid Homes News Archive. Updated November 28, 2005. Kansas Energy Information Network. www.kansasenergy.org/offthegrid.htm Accessed November 30, 2005. (More examples of people living off the grid)
Off the Grid Living. Updated April 5, 2005. Off the Grid Living. www.offgrid.cjb.net Accessed November 30, 2005. (An excellent resource that includes lots of stories of people who live off the grid.)
Real Goods. Gaiam. www.realgoods.com Accessed November 30, 2005. (Retail store carrying many solar technology goods for the home)
Solar Energy Technologies Program. Updated November 30, 2005. Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. www.eere.energy.gov/solar Accessed November 30, 2005.
Structure of the Five Paragraph Essay. Updated January 31, 2002. Glendale Community College, Glendale, AZ. www.gc.maricopa.edu/English/essay Accessed November 30, 2005.
Why PV is important to you. PV is highly reliable and needs little maintenance. Updated March 4, 2004. Solar Energy Technologies Program, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy. www.eere.energy.gov Accessed November 30, 2005.
The Word Spy. A website is devoted to the sleuthing of new words and phrases. Paul McFedries and Logophilia Limited. www.wordspy.com/words/offthegrid.asp Accessed November 30, 2005. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation)
WorldChanging: Another World Is Here. World Changing. www.worldchanging.com Accessed November 30, 2005. (Highly recommended)
Writing Argumentative Essays. Updated August 18, 2005. Paradigm Online Writing Assistant. www.powa.org Accessed November 30, 2005. (An excellent, award-winning site. Highly recommended.)


Jane Evenson; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson


© 2005 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.