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.
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"It was a little scary at first, wondering if this was all going to work," says Ms. Cirone. "But we didn't have to make any sacrifices or concessions, and we are doing something that benefits the environment. It's kind of exciting to realize that you are on the cutting edge. It's really kind of neat."Skip to next paragraph
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While investment in the technology added $100,000 to the cost of building their home, they admit a certain satisfaction in just the fact that they're generating their own clean energy.
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There are about 750,000 off-the-grid households nationwide, estimates Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America."
Improving technology means that – while still not cheap – living off the grid is more realistic and comfortable than ever before. In an age of extreme economic insecurity plus concern about the effects of using fossil fuels – witness the BP oil spill and a host of recent coal-mining disasters – living off the grid gives people a feeling of structural, financial, and emotional independence. It lets them plan and control their energy use, with no fear of sudden blackouts. It liberates them from the grip of government regulators and utility companies – not to mention reducing their utility costs, after the initial investment is paid off. And it hints at the potential of a different energy future, free of the environmental and social costs of using fossil fuels.
Mr. Rosen estimates that the number of people living off the grid in the US is growing by about 10 percent per year. His website www.off-grid.net features an interactive map that shows where people are living off the grid and helps them connect to share ideas.
"There's much more competition for the amount of fossil fuel available: Prices will go up, availability will go down. So it's right to prepare for that era," Rosen explains. "Going off the grid is like insuring yourself against a time the lights may go out. In the 1970s you had a lot of old-style hermitlike survivalists. But these people are different. This isn't the Stone Age anymore; you can live a quite comfortable life."
For some, going off the grid means demonstrating that clean energy can fuel a lifestyle comparable to those lived on the grid. For others, going off the grid is an intentional part of "downscaling to a simpler existence," as Rosen puts it.
Most clean-energy experts don't see off-grid living as the solution to the nation's energy crisis. They say large- and medium-scale renewable-energy systems are the way to go. Think: a geothermal setup heating and cooling 200 homes. Or a few wind turbines providing electricity for a suburb. Or off-the-grid ecovillages like those near Taos, N.M., and Big Bend, Texas, where houses are built with cutting-edge sustainable design and materials and share renewable-energy resources.
Most renewable-energy policy and technology experts advocate that people generating their own electricity also stay connected to the grid, when possible, so they can send clean energy back to the grid when they're making more than they can use.
Even if generating your own electricity for a single home – as the Cirones do – isn't the most efficient choice, these do-it-yourself energy pioneers may be the vanguard of the energy future, the dreamers and doers who show that it is possible to bypass mainstream commercial utilities and fossil fuels and still live comfortably and productively.
"If we are going to move toward an age of energy independence, these are the foot soldiers, the people who show us what we have to do," says Rosen.
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Living off the grid typically requires a significant investment. Hall figures that once the hydropower system is finished on his property, he will have invested about $15,000 on energy systems. Most North Carolinians spend several hundred dollars a month for electricity, water, and heat. So the Halls will have paid off their investment in a decade.