Green living: Off the grid families pioneer sustainable energy lifestyles
Once on the fringe, about 750,000 off the grid American households pioneer green living by tapping sustainable energy from the wind, sun, and earth.
Living "off the grid" can conjure fantasies of Swiss Family Robinson-style ingenuity in paradise. Or, for those with less love of roughing it, it can simply remind them of the hardscrabble self-reliance throughout much of the developing world, where millions cook over fires, bathe in streams, and consider the glow of a bare light bulb a luxury.Skip to next paragraph
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In the United States, off-the-grid living – without relying on government entities or utility companies to provide electricity, heat, gas, and water – often is associated with gritting it out on the survivalist fringe.
But an increasing range of Americans are leading a snug, even smug, lifestyle totally or mostly unhitched from public utilities. Using nature – the sun, wind, water, and the earth itself – they cheaply warm and cool their homes and power everything from a blender to a giant flat-screen TV to a raging hot tub. And with the constant concern about global warming and messy dependence on fossil fuels, it's natural that growing numbers of Americans – "the foot soldiers" of energy independence, as one expert calls them – would begin taking steps to untether themselves from the grid.
For Wayah Hall, going off the grid in a cabin 26 miles from downtown Asheville, N.C., was a way to live in harmony with nature and avoid reliance on electricity that comes from the region's coal-burning power plant that pumps smog into the famous Blue Ridge Mountains haze.
Mr. Hall, an outdoor-skills instructor, and his wife, Alicia Bliss Hall, a natural healer, live in a kind of off-the-grid neighborhood with another young couple: Jason Brake, a professional muralist, and his wife, Diana Styffeler, a mountain bike excursion leader. Their two cabins, nestled in temperate rain forest, are powered with electricity that comes exclusively from solar panels mounted on a wagon that they wheel around the property to catch the best rays. Their water comes from a swiftly flowing stream; wood-burning stoves heat the cabins and even an outdoor hot tub; and indoor, waterless composting toilets built decoratively out of tree stumps mean they don't need a sewer system. They're installing a hydropower system in the stream that will add to the solar power.
Their existence appears quite rustic – and the "sustainable" lifestyle depends a whole lot on them to sustain it with such work as wood chopping and wagon pulling. But they say they have all the creature comforts they need, and – if February's record snowstorm is any gauge – some their neighbors need, too. When public power outages left on-the-grid neighbors in dark and chilly homes, a dozen of them congregated in the Halls' self-sufficient glow: a lighted cabin, where they cozied up to the wood stove, recharged their cellphones, and even enjoyed a soak in the hot tub.
"We didn't even realize the power had gone out until our friends started coming over looking for refuge," says Ms. Hall.
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Off-the-grid living for Paula and William Cirone has a more suburban look and feel, as well as a different motive. In 2001, the Texas natives moved to central Illinois, where Mr. Cirone was taking over a family company. Their hearts were set on buying and building on woodland near Farmington that he had hunted and fished two decades before. But an issue over easements meant the utility company could not extend lines to connect to their new home. Going off the grid was the only way to realize their dream.
Ms. Cirone was initially nervous, not wanting to give up her comfortable lifestyle – being able to throw in a load of laundry, or flip on the TV or microwave, whenever she felt like it. But the Cirones built a comfortable, spacious home powered entirely by wind and solar energy, with a geothermal system for heating and cooling.