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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Cirone says he doesn't expect to see a financial payoff anytime soon on his $100,000 investment in higher-end, higher-capacity systems, but the nonmonetary benefits are many. Their two sons, an electrical engineer and a doctoral student with an energy focus, are so enthused about the potential of off-the-grid living that they are launching a renewable-energy consulting company.
"There's a lot more return on investment than just money," Cirone says. "I believe inside our own basic spirit is the fact we want to do what's correct for the environment and, ultimately, the universe. We hope this proves to anyone who even considers [going off the grid] that if you don't want to give up anything in your lifestyle, you can use alternative energy and still have all the amenities you want."
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Solar energy is the most popular and fastest-growing way to generate your own power. Improving technology, a glut of solar panels on the world market caused, in part, by the end of European subsidies that had driven production, and American government incentives mean solar power is an increasingly affordable option. San Diego, like some other cities, has started a program to lend money to home-owners for the purchase of solar panels, with loan payments added to the property tax over 20 years.
Though the Southwest and South are solar hot spots, studies show it is a viable option in seemingly gloomy locales like the upper Midwest and the Northeast. (See story on page 30.)
Residential solar power increased by about a third in 2009, with roughly 40,000 new installations, says Seth Masia, of the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society. Such a system – usually four kilowatts – might cost about $10,000 to purchase and install. If the savings on electric utility bills is, say, $80 a month, the investment should pay off in about a decade.