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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Cars, for one, have never fit the Amish way of life. Here, people depend on one another, and not only for the large, stereotypical, barn-raising-type tasks. If your neighbor goes into labor, you want to be around to care for her children. Being within horse and buggy range means being close enough to church members to maintain community life. Cars are considered an expensive drain of resources, and the self-sufficiency they offer would smack of pridefulness in a culture devoted to simplicity.
An elaborate system of solar panels – one larger than a family needed for some specific task to earn a living – would also depart from a “plain” lifestyle. It could unnecessarily burden a family’s finances. It could also make residents less dependent on each other for basic needs.
Perhaps most important, the Amish favor farms and small businesses because they provide a living – and offer employment to all members of the family, from children to the elderly. Labor saving devices would defeat this purpose. The plain life “is just our way of doing things – it’s what we like best,” says one Amish woman.
As for the near-universal ban on electricity in the home, it is akin, perhaps, to the non-Amish parents who keep computers and TVs out of their children’s rooms. The ban promotes togetherness. Without light or central heating in bedrooms, the family congregates out of necessity in the evenings.
For other technologies, the litmus test is the same: Is this necessary and will it pose a threat to the family, church, and community structure? If, like a telephone, something limits face-to-face interaction, it’s usually rejected, though phones are often kept in the barn or in an outdoor booth. Several districts until recently barred bicycles but not push scooters.
As with the orange “slow moving vehicle” triangle affixed to the back of the buggy, some districts have agreed to concessions to the outside world in response to public safety concerns. Technologies that the Amish do allow tend to be found in businesses, not in the home.
“We take Jesus as our model,” one woman explains. “He didn’t have a fancy house.”
In Amish country, not owning doesn’t mean not using. Amish routinely hire cars and drivers when their destination is beyond buggy range. An Amish contractor may use his driver’s cellphone to order supplies. Yet not having such things always at hand, they believe, makes their interaction with technology more deliberative.
The Amish Ordnung, a body of customs and guidelines passed down through the generations, is adapted over time to reflect new challenges. Congregation members and church leaders discuss whether to revise it during meetings held prior to the twice-yearly communion services. On technology and other matters, they aim to preserve unity. Respect for – and obedience to – authority are core values.
Serious disagreements are rare, though in 1966, a group of Lancaster County Amish now known as the New Order Amish broke off from the Old Order over differences that included use of telephones and electricity. Later, the New Order split again, forming a group that wanted cars.
One current source of tension is cellphones. Rejected by the church but easily hidden, they’re the forbidden fruit of a few recalcitrant Amish teenagers.
“They won’t put a young guy out [of the church] if he has a cellphone,” says Sam Lapp, who contributes to the Amish newspaper, Budget. Solar dealer Zook, who was raised Amish and still attends services, predicts that because it helps with essential work, solar power will “find its way in.”
While each age may have its solar power conundrum, overall there’s little dispute that the plain life is the good life here. One mother, her smiling teenage daughter at her side, notes that their lack of a radio buffered them that day from the dire news on Wall Street. She glances up at a perfect blue sky.
“The banks are closing, but look – it’s a beautiful day.”