A Former Republican Congressman Dismisses the Electric Grid

Washington, D.C., March 2, 2024 –Is there life off the electric grid?

Roscoe Bartlett, 87, a Republican who represented my western Maryland congressional district in Congress for 20 years before losing a reelection campaign to a Democrat in 2012, has long been preaching about the limits of the electric grid. He’s been an outspoken advocate of the need to harden the electric infrastructure to withstand earth-shattering assaults including solar storms, electrical pulses, and the like. His Jeremiads have long been ignored by both political parties.

This is not an obituary, as Roscoe is quite alive at this writing. It is an appreciation of a long life of accomplishment, even though I have long disagreed with many of those achievements. I confess that I have never voted for Roscoe, although I have long liked him personally.

As described in POWER articles over the years and recently profiled in the Politico magazine, Bartlett has been a prophet of doom for the interconnected electrical grid. His doomsday prognostications have failed to occur so far; that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future, he insists.

Roscoe is a quirky prophet of an electromagnetic doom, and a likeable guy who once shared a secretive bowl of lamb chili with me (because he and his wife are Seventh Day Adventist vegetarians and he didn’t want her to see us both enjoying a meat dish). On the other hand, his pre-Tea Party views are quite repugnant. He once, probably unthinkingly, adopted the odious Rush Limbaugh rhetoric of women in politics with the sobriquet “feminazi.” Sorry, Roscoe, that’s intolerable.

Now retired, Bartlett is living on land he has long owned in West Virginia. He’s developing a modern life unconnected to the electrical grid, based on solar photovoltaic technology. Bartlett doesn’t reject modern technology. He rejects the grid, and good for him.

In his 20-some years in Congress, and before that as a scientist and farmer, the ultra-conservative Bartlett was a staunch advocate of self-reliant renewable energy. He consistently bucked the tide of his Republican colleagues in the House caucus. He was tea party before the Tea Party was cool (or tepid). He was a consistent booster of solar and wind power and a staunch opponent of utility central station generation.

Roscoe never adopted the hard-edged, take-no-prisoners rhetoric of the wing-nut right. In Congress, Roscoe was an advocate of reasoned debate, not personal attacks. When it came to the Maryland remap in the aftermath of the 2010 Census, his GOP colleagues saw little need to protect him when the dominant Maryland Democrats redrew the state’s congressional district. That reflected Bartlett’s general apostasy to conventional GOP wisdom and an unwillingness to toe the Tea Party’s ever-trending right and fright bright line..

The GOP’s weak response to redistricting reflected their view of Bartlett’s general apostasy and his unwillingness to toe the Tea Party line consistently. Moderate (and extraordinarily wealthy) Democrat John Delany ousted Bartlett in the 2012 election.

Today, out of office, Bartlett is developing, in a very unusual way, property in West Virginia that is completely disconnected from the electric utility power grid. A Ph.D. scientist and holder of numerous patents, Bartlett says he’s happy concocting a low-technology lifestyle that’s not drawing power from the grid. He’s got an array of PV panels to supply all of the electric needs of his 150-acre farm.

Bartlett is a 21st Century right-wing conservative wrapped up as a 20th Century hippie. Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer from southern Maryland, the second-ranked Democrat in the House, served with Bartlett for many years. He said, “Roscoe was green before it was cool to be green.”

Does Roscoe Bartlett, a man of the past, represent the future? That’s doubtful. The vast majority of Americans can’t live a life remotely like Roscoe Bartlett’s post-congressional existence. But he represents a sentiment, perhaps a foolish agrarian romanticism that has widespread support. Many Americans are doubtful of the fruits of a high-tech grid interconnected to everything in our lives, from our thermostats to our phones to our air conditioners to our toasters. Ask Roscoe Bartlett about the virtues of interconnectedness.