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.
(Page 4 of 5)
Through the national program One Block Off the Grid, homeowners band together in groups of 100 to negotiate with solar panel suppliers for bargain deals.Skip to next paragraph
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Many households augment solar panels with wind power – a good combination since wind tends to pick up when the sun goes down or is obscured by storm clouds. Homes typically use "small wind" power – with turbines that generate less than 10 kilowatts. But "small wind" is not a new concept – wind power has been harnessed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, for such things as transportation, milling, and pumping water. But in recent years it has become increasingly popular. The "small wind" market grew 15 percent in 2009 despite the recession, says Ron Stimmel, small systems manager for the American Wind Energy Association.
The five-kilowatt turbines needed to power an average home range from 30 to 140 feet tall and cost about $30,000. Turbines that produce less than one kilowatt – to supplement solar panels or electricity from the grid – can cost less than $10,000.
Wind turbines aren't as easily suited to a wide range of buildings and geographic locations as solar panels, because they usually require up to an acre of space, unobstructed by tall buildings, hillsides, or trees. Wind turbines can be mounted on roofs or parapets – as in the Bronx apartment complex featured on page 29 – but only if the structure is strong enough. Zoning restrictions can make it difficult to install wind turbines, so proponents are pushing for wind-friendly codes.
And generating one's own electricity isn't the only way to bypass or reduce dependence on commercial utilities. In many homes, a large amount of electricity is used to run air conditioners, and electricity, natural gas, or oil is used for heating. But harnessing natural sources eliminates or reduces this consumption. The simplest way is through architecture that naturally keeps the home at a stable temperature, as John Sagebiel's home near Reno, Nev., featured on page 30, demonstrates.
"Passive solar" means a home is designed so that the sun's heat is captured and stored naturally. Windows are placed to maximize sunshine exposure when desired, and thick concrete floors and walls hold heat. Recently developed "smart" windows and drywall even react to the temperature outside by keeping heat out or drawing heat in.
Geothermal energy is a high-tech, relatively expensive way to heat and cool a home. But from densely packed Manhattan to the plains of the Midwest, it is increasingly common for households to plumb deep in the earth to heat and cool.