It Isn't Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out

April is the month that utility shut-offs are resumed in much of the northern half of the country - it is against the law to shut off people's primary heating fuel during the winter, but when they can't pay their bills, generally speaking, April 1 means that you can cut them off. There has been some upheaval in our area, where an unusually cold spring has meant that there is still a need for supplemental heating, and many poor people with very cold houses.

I thought it was worth re-running this article - a version of this ran in 2005, and I've republished it several times since then. We certainly know that major Grid disruptions are possible - for example, much of Japan will be operating on reduced electrical access for months or years - but I do want to point out to most people that the way you lose power in the coming crisis may not be the one you have been thinking of, and one's adaptation strategies need to be prepared not just for loss of power due to natural disaster or grid disruption, but economic disruption of your energy supplies, which unfortunately, happens all the time. We've all seen the degree to which our economic crisis has taken center stage, and it is worth remembering that your neighbors may have lights and power, while you have none - and for many people that's a harder scenario than everyone in the neighborhood out together. There is so much shame to being poor in the US that the private darkness that engulfs many of us is harder to address than the collective one.

A lot of us worry about extended power outages, and for good reason - they are incredibly disruptive to large areas. The more one knows about our extant outdated electric grid with its weak infrastructure, the more this sort of thing is worrisome. I certainly do think that there are some compelling reasons to worry about the ability of the existing grid to satisfy the needs of a society that, because of oil and gas depletion and carbon reduction, is moving more and more of its energy burden to electricity.

Many of the proposals to clean up carbon involve changing the source of energy away from oil to either nuclear energy or coal plants with scrubbers and sequestration (I will have more to say about the problems of carbon sequestration from coal plants in another post - I am less sanguine than many people that we can actually do this). In many proposals we would begin powering our transportation with electric cars, buses and trains, replacing oil with electricity, etc...

While I have my doubts about whether we will ever do all of these things, if we did, it -would certainly place enormous pressure on the grid, and require enormous investments in infrastructure. It is no big deal to recharge a few thousand electric cars - if everyone had one, this would be something of an issue. But regardless, I think it is also possible that we could accomplish this, or that we could fail to convert our infrastructure quickly enough (this is an enormous economic undertaking) thus overburdening the grid and leading to widespread power disruptions. I officially take no strong position here.

But what I do have a strong opinion on (you knew there had to be something ) is this: I think most of us ought to be preparing for a life without electricity, regardless of whether we are concerned about natural or structural disruptions in the electrical grid.

I believe this for purely practical reasons. Peak oil and climate change, for most of us, will be less about geopolitics and large scale infrastructure crisis than it will be about what I call (riffing on Freud) ordinary human poverty. That is, we're going to be poorer, many of us much, much poorer.

Even economists who dismiss peak oil acknowledge that significant oil shocks of any kind - caused either by depletion or by political crisis, would cause a major economic crisis. We know from the Stern report (which almost certainly understated things) that the impact of unchecked climate change (we don't have any other kind) may rise over this century to up to 20% of world GDP total. The things that many of us (by no means all) have been able to be certain of - a certain kind of stability and comfort, are going to go away.

The economic problems created by oil depletion and climate change are likely to create a serious, and deep economic crisis, much more serious than anything we've seen in my lifetime. During the last depression, 29% of American schoolchildren suffered some form of malnutrition. Herbert Hoover famously said, "at least no one has starved" only to be caught out as cases of starvation appeared around the nation and mothers in cities rioted because they had nothing for their children to eat. The classic image of stockbrokers selling apples on the street and bread lines going around the block doesn't even quite convey how desperately poor many people were. It is not unlikely this view of our past is part of our future.

One of the useful things about having been crazily poor for some years during college and graduate school (living illegally in school buildings, apartments with no hot water, eviction notices, no phone, no power, etc...), which is not something I generally remember with fondness, is that it gives me some experience with what living poor is like. And one of the things it is like is never being able to pay all your bills.

So you play bill roulette. You pay the one with the most urgent exclamation points and potent threats first, and then you pay the next one. And you can go on like this for some time. But it is very hard to maintain when you don't have enough money to meet your basic expenses. And eventually, you get caught out - the check bounces, the next payment doesn't arrive in time, you have an unexpected crisis, or the bill collectors threaten you into paying out of order, and something happens.

This isn't just my experience - in the years I volunteered with various poverty abatement programs, I saw thousands of people in the same situation. And when you let one of the balls fall, the next step is to set you back even further. Because getting your vehicle back from the impound, or your phone turned back on, or contesting your eviction, or whatever is expensive. Those things cost money you don't have, and you end up further behind.

Peak oil and climate change will hit most of us where it hurts - in our jobs, our pocketbooks, in the homes where we won't be able to make the rent or mortgage payment, in our health because we'll no longer be able to afford routine care, in our choices - instead of "vacation fund or 401K, we'll be wondering "shoes or groceries." Add in that we can expect the price of electricity to rise - carbon sequestration is expensive, nuclear power is expensive initially and dealing with its wastes is very expensive, investment in renewables is not cheap either - we can expect the price of our electricity to rise steadily.

So whether or not we ever have rolling blackouts again or grid failure, lots of us will be having our power turned off. And since electricity for the most part runs luxury items (although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as luxuries) like refrigeration and lights, if it comes down to hard choices like "food or electric," "lights or medicine" we should all recognize that electricity is not essential to (most) human life, and prepare to function well and comfortably without it.

Now private renewable energy is an option for some people. But the systems are expensive and somewhat complicated, and in the northern part of the country, we can expect periods where there isn't enough sun to run our solar systems. I am not trying to discourage anyone who can afford it from investing in renewable energy systems, in fact, quite the contrary. But the process of adapting our homes to operate on less is a large and expensive one. In a nation with a minimal total savings rate, enormous quantites of mortgage and credit card debt, and a shaky currency, a lot of us, probably a majority, aren't going to be able to go solar, and probably shouldn't, because it really doesn't return the most bang for our bucks.

If you have $2000 to spend, you could choose between several things. For that money, you coul add significant insulation to your leaky house, make or purchase insulating curtains for all windows, and buy four solar lanterns, a couple of battery powered lanterns, a solar battery charger and some rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable batteries and the lanterns would provide you with light and music for your existing CD player or MP3 player, and the insulation and curtains would provide a lifetime reduction in your heating and cooling needs. Or, for that same $2000, you could get a battery backup solar system that sat on your roof, and run four lights and a CD player. I know which one I would choose.

For those who are way ahead of the game, and already have their insulation and everything else they need, great, and if you have money to spend on your house, you don't need my advice as to how to use it. But for the rest of us, solar panels on your roof or a wind generator in your yard is probably not the best use of your money (if you have the right spot for microhydro, you might have a better deal, and I'm envious). Because if you triage your life, and think about what is most important, it will be making sure you can live as comfortably as possible and as securely as possible, while, in hard times, needing to buy as few things as possible.

In addition, solar systems generally cannot heat houses, run conventional refrigerators (the kind they can run are usually well
above $1000, and the cost of the system to run them is quite significant as well), run toasters, electric stoves or, except with the largest systems, air conditioning. So you will still have many needs unmet, after you've invested thousands and thousands of dollars in your private RE system. That is, you'd have to buy the solar panels, and still buy the woodstove, the insulation, etc...

If you are like us, that's just out the question economically. We can't afford to preserve electricity at all costs when there are so many more urgent needs, and both household wind and household solar are not totally reliable where I live. We'd have to have non-electric backups for the times when the skies were cloudy or the wind wasn't blowing - or we'd need a generator, which is also pricey, depends on outside gas and produces a lot of carbon. We cannot afford to do both, and I think that's true of many or most people. There's also the issue of mobility - like it or not, in economic hard times some of us will lose our houses, or having family combine housing with them. It is not very hard to pick up your solar crank radio, or to pack your hand-washing machine. It is something of a bigger project to get the solar panels unwired from your house and moved. It is not impossible and again, I:value private renewable energy - but I think it is a luxury of the financially secure, and should come *after* the rest.

For those of us who need the most bang for our buck, we need to prioritize. Electricity is nice - I'm very fond of it. But most of us should have homes that function well without it, just in case. And non-electric, human powered solutions, and stand-alone renewables (that is, things like solar calculators, solar battery chargers, solar radios, etc... that are cheap, last a long time and can serve many of the functions we normally rely on wall plugs for), are overwhelmingly more reliable, cheaper and more secure than dependency on the grid or on house-sized renewable energy systems.

In the cold climates, we need water, heat, light, a source of food and some way to prepare it, and toileting and washing facilities. A means of keeping food cool is helpful too, but a bucket of water taken from the ground and a mason jar will keep your dinner overnight. Laundry facilities would be great, but if you don't get to that, you can wash your clothes in a bucket, wring them through a mop wringer and hang them on a $2 clothesline. If you are prepared to scavenge, can build a lot of stuff and don't require new things, all these needs can probably be fufilled for less than $2000. If you buy everything new, it might cost you 4K, depending on your circumstances. Even if you don't own your home, many of these items are usable in rental housing, and a landlord might well let you install, say, rainwater cachement onto existing drains.

In the west, water is a bigger issue. Most of the rest of us can capture rainwater, but horribly, in some part of the west it is illegal to capture the rainwash off your roof. Very deep wells cannot be pumped manually. For you, solar direct pumps are probably the best option, or perhaps we will return to windmills. Changing the water laws so that you can collect your own rainwater would probably help, as has happened in cities like Denver.

In the hot states (an expanding number), cooling is a much bigger issue than heating. And while a lot can be done with good insulation, heavy curtains and shades, and a good solar attic fan, some people may still need air conditioning. In this case, if air conditioning is a life or death issue, house-attached solar might make sense. But for poor people, swamp coolers and battery powered fans, changes in lifestyle (do work in the early morning and evening), cool baths and showers and a change in pace will probably do it.

Our plan is to make our house functional and comfortable without electric power. That means a manual pump on our well, as well as (because I'm lazy and want water in my house) a cistern tank with a hand pump at my kitchen sink). We have two solar lanterns, two solar battery chargers, and a crank/solar radio for lighting and music (we consider music an essential). I can do my laundry in a bucket, but I'm coveting a James Handwasher and wringer. Refrigeration is already natural during the winter (we have an insulated area that stays plenty cold but does not freeze) and water based during the summer.

It will also mean changing the way we cook in warm weather, but that's no tragedy - the planet is full of people without fridges, and they created some of the best cuisines on earth without them. We have a wood cookstove and a regular woodstove, and plenty of warm clothes and blankets for the unheated sleeping areas. We had a homemade outdoor masonry oven, but we'll need to build a new one this year, which will be fun. I've got two homemade solar cookers, but am coveting a professionally made one, which will achieve higher temperatures. But I could get along with my homemade ones. Our baling-wire and glue composting toilet could be replaced with something new and pretty, but the original worked fine, the bucket was free and the commode bought at a yard sale for $5. We buy sawdust now and again, but could use old leaves. We're reinsulating, which is not cheap, but we could, if necessary, just get used to the cold. It would not kill us. Homemade insulated curtains, tapestries or blankets hung over underinsulated walls, reusable bubble wrap on windows, even styrofoam insulation covered with bookshelves, and handmade draft dodgers would do the same job for much, much less money, as would moving more and faster and putting on more clothes. We should not confuse issues of comfort with issues of necessity.

Ultimately, we may turn the power off for other reasons than necessity. If our nation fails to cut its emissions, and our electricity is increasingly created by dirty coal, or by nuclear plants that endanger our communities, turning it all off may be the only possible way to avoid participating in the harm we're doing. It is important to me that I keep in mind that electricity for private homes (I am not speaking here about electricity for hospitals and other public resources) is a luxury, not a necessity. It is probably difficult for most of us to get our minds around these facts, but it is true.



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I am less sanguine than many people that we can actually do this)

Considering that the whole idea of using coal is to capture the energy you get when you release the carbon atoms from each other ... clearly, this is just the coal industry making us think they have a solution.

Watching Japanese Television over the last several weeks (directly and via my partner in crime, Ana) it is interesting to see what regular rolling blackouts do to industry. There are a lot of industrial processes that are based on continuous supply of electricity, where some object is melted, heated, then kept under sustained heat/pressure, then immediately machined (or whatever) or the food ingredients are processed through a series of steps that can't be interrupted for 17 hours or you don't get bred (or beer etc). Presumably if these industries were faced with major blackouts on a regular basis they could use generators, but that defeats the purpose. Or, they can redesign their process but that may put many of them out of business.

i think this is interesting how we can just take the power away from people. i think people do need to pay there job but i dont know how people can do this in a economy when some people dont have jobs.

Great points to get us thinking about what is truly a necessity and what is really a luxury that we've grown used to!

To be pedantic about Denver, they didn't really change the rainwater laws, they just allowed a very narrow exception for those not on city water and a few other restrictions. The Colorado Constitution still outlaws collection in almost all cases.

"And since electricity for the most part runs luxury items (although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as luxuries) like refrigeration and lights, if it comes down to hard choices like "food or electric," "lights or medicine" we should all recognize that electricity is not essential to (most) human life, and prepare to function well and comfortably without it."

Gawd, I would like to see the expression on your face when that horde from the city arrives after the coming Grid Failure.

Actually, dear, electricity is essential in literally every phase of food production and distribution in the United States and it is essential in virtually every other life-sustaining system in this industrialized USA - not to mention the degree to which millions of souls from the rest of the world rely on electricity-enabled US food production.

Now, I realize that you are still operating in the "Little House on the Prairie" paradigm [or at least, pretend to be] which says that 300E6 souls can each have a little sustainable patch of heaven on earth in America and which says that there will be no human dieoff, but I'm afraid that it just ain't so.

Industrialized human society and the bulk of the human population rely on the supply of massive amounts of electrical energy. The failure of the grid = the failure of industrialized human society. Reread Duncan and Heinberg.

Although your prose is much more eloquent and soothing, you have at least one thing in common with Rush Limbaugh. That is is your logic model where 1+... 1+.... 1+... 1 = absolutely three weeks from a spaghetti factory green splash timing or whatever silly conclusion du jour has gripped you.

Perhaps, your prattle-bot mania is an attempt to smother your anguished cries of unresolved fear and guilt over imagined consequences of past actions. I hope that your motivation is at least that deep and sincere. I can't imagine that it is simply in pursuit of wealth and prestige - although, they are quite intoxicating are they not.

"horribly, in some part of the west it is illegal to capture the rainwash off your roof."

This seems unusually blinkered for you, Sharon, granted that you're in an udic environment. If there's not enough water for year-round greenness, the rivers and groundwater rely on rainwater recharge, often in a really short season. Diverting that water isn't different from pulling it out of an overcommitted river. It's only sort of horrible that we try not to pump our rivers dry -- downstream of us, it's survival.

There are places and times when it's more or less damaging; diverting water that would otherwise go into storm sewers and directly into the ocean is probably a good idea, for instance.

I don't see how refrigeration and lights could possibly be considered luxuries:

Refrigeration plays a major role in our food industries, allowing food to last much longer and be transported much farther. This makes it easier to ship from the country to the city.. the alternative is switching back to preservatives like salt, or having people live close to the source of their food, i.e., de-urbanize, and then we lose all of the other economies-of-scale that come with urbanization.

Likewise for lighting. It's necessary for urban living, and it lets people work much longer hours in the more northerly latitudes in the winter. And night shifts make many factories much more productive.

We can't toss aside all these huge gains in productivity and expect the Earth to support 6 billion people.. or even 1 billion, probably. And nuclear waste isn't *that* hard to manage, and the price of solar power is close to grid parity. Maybe the current lifestyle is unsustainable, but I expect that we don't need to make such big adjustments as you say.

Micheal & Ben W,

You both seem to have somehow missed the fact that Sharon was talking about electricity in private homes, as explicitly stated in the second-to-last sentence of the post:

It is important to me that I keep in mind that electricity for private homes (I am not speaking here about electricity for hospitals and other public resources) is a luxury, not a necessity.

Look, imagine yourself much, much poorer than you are now. You must cut out some of the things that you take for granted today. What do you cut? Lights in your house/apartment or heating or food? If you can't afford all the necessities, then you start thinking long and hard about which 'necessities' are truly necessary and which you can live without though you might prefer not to.

Dear Sharon

I like this post a lot. It is true that you do not need a lot of stuff to live these days. If everyone had solar lanterns and radios it would be fine because a lantern puts out enough light to read, cook, etc. If everyone reduced, reused, and recycled we probably would not have the struggles we have today.

Your reader


By Colton L. (not verified) on 27 Apr 2011 #permalink

I donât think it is right to shut off peoples supplemental heating. This could cause many problems to some of the people without supplemental heating.

Some folks just don't seem to get it. Apparently, the "necessity" of electricity has been around since the dawn of humanity, because otherwise humans would've never survived past day 1!

The upcoming and inevitable dearth of energy (from all source -- coal, gas, oil, etc) will invariably lead to fewer of us on the planet. The pandora's box of fossil fuels that we've been burning through over the last 200 years is the one reason that we've added 6 billion humans to the planet. Most of us will disappear along with the energy that makes our existence possible, whether we voluntarily cease using it or not.

I'm just hoping that we have the presence of mind to voluntarily reduce (or preferably eliminate) our fossil fuel use in time to keep at least a few of us around. Fossil fuels are the proverbial "rope to hang ourselves with", and it's quite apparent to me that we do have enough rope for that purpose. Anyone who prepares themselves for this inevitable scarcity will be better positioned to survive the transition.

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Look, imagine yourself much, much poorer than you are now. You must cut out some of the things that you take for granted today. What do you cut?

Sure - I understand this. In such a hypothetical situation with expensive electricity, we would have to make some serious cuts. But I don't see that situation happening any time soon. What could drive up the price of electricity? Expensive coal, maybe resulting from Peak Coal or CO2 regulation? No - Peak Coal is still a couple decades off, and I don't expect Congress to pass any serious greenhouse gas legislation before solar and wind are viable alternatives to coal. Peak Oil? No, oil is rarely used for lighting or refrigeration.

Even if you expect the price of electricity to double or triple (by which point nuclear, natural gas, wind, and current solar all become economical), most people could neatly trim back their electricity usage without giving up lighting or refrigeration. I'm a poorly-paid grad student living in a duplex in Pennsylvania, and a doubling in electricity prices wouldn't cause me serious pain, even *before* I took counter measures - insulate my house, switch to CFL bulbs, get a more efficient fridge.. etc.

And those are just the low-hanging fruit. There's plenty of technology on the horizon with much higher energy efficiencies, and even a modest 30% increase in electricity prices would drive the adoption of these technologies. For example, LED lights are about 8-12x as efficient as incandescent bulbs, and are already starting to be adopted. Mass production would drive down the costs considerably.


Apparently, the "necessity" of electricity has been around since the dawn of humanity, because otherwise humans would've never survived past day 1!

Ermmm, I think there's some flaws in your logic, there. The human race also survived just fine without hospitals, antibiotics, crop fertilizers, clean water, etc.. All these advances made life much more pleasant and allowed us to expand our population. If you really think that "most of us will disappear along with the energy that makes our existence possible", then certainly, electricity is a necessity.

I'm a poorly-paid grad student living in a duplex in Pennsylvania, and a doubling in electricity prices wouldn't cause me serious pain, even *before* I took counter measures...

As one grad student to another... are you doing the accounting for your direct electricity purchases only, or after assuming that a lot of indirect energy cost would get passed on? I'd expect food to rocket up, city and university services to plummet, and free online stuff based on giant server farms to get throttled or paywalled or turned off. Just for starters!

As one grad student to another... are you doing the accounting for your direct electricity purchases only, or after assuming that a lot of indirect energy cost would get passed on? I'd expect food to rocket up, city and university services to plummet, and free online stuff based on giant server farms to get throttled or paywalled or turned off. Just for starters!

Yeah, I'm certainly not taking into account the 2nd-order effects here. And my experience may not be typical - my wife and I have no kids, we cook most of our own meals, she has a vegetable garden, we go pick fruit and mushrooms for fun, and turn the fruit into syrup/jam/freezer food, etc.. We live cheaply, and we enjoy this life. There is plenty of cheap and fun recreation to be found in a good public library, or in watching DVDs with friends, or going outdoors for a hike or indoors for two-person jogging.

Life doesn't have to be expensive, and many Americans have plenty of room for cutting costs before they have to start giving up pseudo-necessities like lighting and refrigeration. There's a lot of flexibility left in the system. (I'm considering the US population as a whole, here. Obviously some people are struggling, and will struggle, much more than average =\. )

Now, maybe if Peak Oil and Climate Change hit at the same time - both raising the prices on everything and causing crops to fail - yeah, then I can see Sharon's scenario becoming widespread. But if we face these two problems individually, like I'm guessing we will, we'll settle out okay after some moderately rough times.

I keep moderately abreast of the energy/biofuels/battery research, and I expect that we can significantly reduce our dependence on oil within 10 years, and cut it out almost entirely within 15-20.

The issue in the West with not being able to capture rain off your roof is not about groundwater recharge, etc. It has to do with water rights, and someone has determined that catching your roof rainwater is interfering with their water rights (as in they got the water before you build your house.) ugh.

Clew, the problem is that the vast majority of storm water in urban areas gets lost due to overflow - so river recharge isn't significantly affected by storm water collection - in the net, a number of studies have demonstrated that more water goes in useful places when rainwater collection is in place than not - see Tucson's city water system, for example.

Ben, the problem isn't per se that electricity becomes too expensive, it is that people become too poor - imagine your grad stipends being cut in half (or eliminated) due to the economic woes forthcoming from our situation. All of a sudden, an income that has been adequate begins to be strained *at every point* - and the thing about utilities is that when you can't pay the bills, you get shut off. Again, this isn't a novel concept, it happens all over the US and all over the world all the time - to millions of people. There are people living withour reliable electricity in every US city in the world right now because they can't pay the bills. It is, of course, preferrable to imagine none of us will ever be that poor - I'm not sure it is realistic to imagine it, but it would be nicer that way.

People live in cities without electricity all over the world right now, and have done so for millenia - what you are saying is that refrigeration is necessary to the food system that we have now - but it would have to change. Private refrigeration is, in fact, a luxury - billions of people in the world have no access to it, and still eat. They eat differently - but that's not the same as necessity.


What's funny about the negative responses to me is that this situation isn't hypothetical - it already exists in every single US city. There are people who come home to no refrigeration, no lights, etc... So the claim that these things are necessary is kind of strange - moreover, that's precisely my point. In most poor cities in the world, for example, there's electricity (at least some of the time) in the upper middle class neighborhoods. There's running clean water there too. My whole point is that the "grid" could functionally go down for many of us (and in fact, does functionally go down for some people) in the simplest of ways - we could get our power shut off. I find it funny then that I get screeds like Michael's about how necessary electricity is - it is of course fairly fundamental to our present way of life, but *EVEN TODAY* we recognize that you can live in apartment in Detroit or the Bronx or LA without electricity - because people do it all the time. There were almost half a million utility shutoffs just in NYC last year - most of them got turned on again fairly quickly but quite a lot didn't. The idea that the gap between rich and poor access to necessities might widen doesn't seem even remotely controversial to me - consider for example the way that has already happened with medical care - also necessary, if you want to live. Except that what we've found is that in fact, among the 40% of Americans with limited or no access to health insurance, you don't live as long. Lots of things are necessary. That does not make the inevitable.

But then, I've often noticed that in some ways, we have an easier time imagining ourselves in the Mad Max landscape than we do simply imagining we might become poor. It is a uniquely American, or perhaps uniquely affluent blind spot.


I like the idea of solar radios and solar MP3 players. My problem: where to find them. I'd like to actually look at the thing before I buy it, to see how well it's constructed, able to hold up against my kids, etc. Any ideas for places to buy that sort of thing?

I have often thought about how we would handle it if our electric bill doubled. My husband is retired, so we are living on a fairly fixed income. One of our solutions is to do our own "rolling blackout" before the bill gets too high to pay. So we would throw the breaker switch, shutting off our own power for a few days a week. We have some solar lanterns, etc. and could live in relative comfort without electricity for short periods of time. Our biggest problem would be water. Our well is over 250 feet deep, too deep for a hand pump. This is something that we should all be thinking about. As you point out, we might be priced out of the electricity market.

Having just survived a week without power here in Alabama -- in fact, our entire area was out -- most people came to the conclusion that is wasn't really that big of a deal, especially once most of the businesses had generators running. Granted, the weather was mild and the days relatively long this time of year, so if you are going to have an extended power outage, this is when to do it.

I had a generator running for my deep freeze. Indeed, the freezer was a liability in this situation. Otherwise I went to bed when it was dark and got up when it was light. It was quite relaxing.

Martha - You can cut circuits without shutting off the main power. Just leave the well pump circuit running, and the refridgerator or any other essentials. Or, if/when finances permit, invest in a small solar array and hook your well pump up to it.