Trying to get off the grid….

The recent excitement about homes and businesses someday soon operating off the grid—courtesy of rapidly improving solar panels and the potential of Elon Musk’s batteries—isn’t exactly a new phenomenon: In the late 1970s and early ‘80s I attended a high school completely off the grid. It was nobody’s idea of a hippie commune—it was a Catholic high school in Peoria, Illinois. Its self-sufficient oil-powered power plant was an experiment borne of the idealism and fanciful impracticality of the committee in charge of constructing the school a decade earlier.

The motivation back then for being off the grid was a desire to avoid what were, at the time, relatively common power disruptions resulting from the severe weather that befalls Central Illinois. However, by the time the 1980s arrived, the local power company had managed to bury a good chunk of its lines and greatly improve reliability, while the school was stuck with a failing power plant it had paid a fortune for. Evidently, no one on the school board understood the concept of sunk costs.

When the maintenance issues became so severe that it threatened the school’s before and after-school basketball practices—of paramount importance in a basketball-mad town—some well-heeled donors financed an overhaul that put the school onto the grid.

The ignorance of sunk costs is a common affliction these days, and one that is implicit in many arguments that deride the current heated discussion about how continued efficiency gains in solar, combined with new technological gains in energy storage, could transform the provision of energy in the United States.