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The Amish go solar – in a simple way

Many use solar panels for small tasks but not to power the home, which is still too much of a journey into modernity.

By Correspondent / October 27, 2008



Lancaster County, Pa.

The buggy is in the drive. Trousers flutter on the clothesline. Horses prance as they work the field, their manes flowing, their step high. And mounted there on the shed out back are, well, solar panels – looking as if this Hollywood-set Amish family somehow stumbled into the Philadelphia Home Show.

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Solar energy has been used by a few of the technology-eschewing Amish for decades now. But with soaring energy costs, more families are putting sunlight-collecting panels on their barns and outbuildings. Indeed, area dealers report sales of solar systems to the Amish are up 30 percent to 50 percent this year alone.

Unlike the non-Amish – who tend to favor large alternative energy systems that connect directly to the public utility grid – Amish prefer simple stand-alone systems. They use solar panels to power a battery for a specific task – such as running the lights on a buggy or operating a woodshop motor. The don’t use electricity inside the home. Solar energy is replacing propane, gas, or diesel to run small motors on farms and in businesses.

“The solar power system is really simple – a couple of panels and a battery,” says Sam Zook, of Belmont Solar, in Gordonville, Pa.
Isn’t this still a bit high-tech for the horse and buggy set?

Not at all says Mr. Zook. “The Amish are not completely disconnected from the outside world. There’s always someone running a retail store [nearby] and introducing a new item.”

Whether these are accepted or not is up to church leaders, and rulings differ from congregation to congregation and district to district. Cars and electricity tend to be rejected. And solar is not accepted everywhere yet, says Zook, even here in Lancaster County, which is considered one of the nation’s more progressive settlements of Amish.

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In general, the Amish as a community are wary of technology creep. Even though the march of iPods and halogen lights may seem inevitable, the Amish worry that, if left unchecked, it would undermine their core beliefs and values.

“There are some who will always need everything,” explains one Amish shop owner doing transactions by the light of a large window in his store. He does not have solar. Like most Amish, he will speak only if not identified. Particularly on issues that could be divisive for the community, the Amish don’t comment publicly.

“The Amish are not trying to freeze things as they were 30 years ago,” says Stephen Scott, of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. “Each innovation is evaluated as to if it will affect the community, the church. Solar is considered very natural. It’s making use of an alternative energy that’s God-given.”

But solar power is just one of countless technology-related issues the Amish confront as they struggle, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, to retain the separation from the world that protects their sense of church, family, and community.

What determines why the Amish can ride a buggy but not a car to pick up gas at the convenience store? Why they can power their refrigerator by solar, but not wire the kids’ bedrooms?

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