Ohio’s Amish, with their horse-drawn buggies, plain clothing and austere lifestyle, have embraced solar power, says Green Energy Ohio, a Columbus grass-roots organization that is pushing renewable energy. Ohio’s Amish country is the heart of a green-power sales boom and proof that solar power works in not-always-sunny northern Ohio.
The most common Amish home use of solar power is for recharging battery-powered floor lamps, which are on wheels and roll from room to room. Solar power may also be used in Amish houses to run sewing machines, sweepers and washing machines.
Ohio’s Amish country covers parts of Wayne, Stark, Holmes, Tuscarawas, Coshocton, Knox, Ashland and Richland counties and is home to some 40,000 members of Amish and the more modern Mennonite sects. It is the world’s largest Amish-Mennonite settlement.
No one really knows exactly how many solar units are in use in Amish country. Green Energy estimates that 13 percent of Ohio’s solar production comes from the Amish, and tens of thousands of solar units have been installed in Amish houses in recent years.
One local hardware store started stocking and selling solar units eight months ago because of the Amish demand. Now the non-Amish also are getting interested in the product, they said.
Jacob Raber is an Amishman who sells solar cells through his Lighthouse Distributors of Ohio Ltd. in Prairie Township in northern Holmes County. He said 10 percent to 30 percent of the Amish rely on solar power, although its use is frowned on by some of the conservative orders.
In most cases, Raber said, the Amish are using small solar units as a less costly means to recharge batteries, not to power entire houses.
Batteries have become a staple in Amish life, providing the electric power for lights and appliances. Many households have as many as 20 batteries for power.
But the batteries need to be recharged by gasoline-fueled generators, and that’s gotten more costly as gasoline prices have soared.
TWO PANELS ENOUGH
For $600 to $800, the Amish can add minimal solar power to recharge the batteries for their homes and buggies. Most Amish add one or two panels — not the 20 to 60 panels it would take to hook up most American houses.
“With solar, you can charge your batteries for free after the initial investment,” Raber said.
Adding solar power and batteries also means the Amish do not have to rely on white gasoline (it doesn’t have lead and other additives) at $5 a gallon to fuel lanterns, he said.
And that has a health benefit, because it reduces gasoline fumes and carbon monoxide emissions in Amish houses, he said.
AMISH REJECT THE GRID
It’s commonly believed that the Amish shun the use of electricity, relying instead on 19th-century technology like lanterns and wood stoves. But Thomas J. Meyers, a professor of sociology at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., and an expert on the Amish, said the religious sect has never rejected electricity.
What the Amish reject is tying into the public electric grid, Meyers said.
“They chose not to hook into the electric grid as a boundary marker,” he said. “Many of the symbols that seem so strange to outsiders, like the buggy and 19th-century clothing, are simply means to keep the Amish clear about the boundary between their world and that of the larger world. They do not think cars are evil and will ride in them but not own them because they chose to draw the line between their society and the dominant culture by refusing to allow the use of cars.
“Yes, they use batteries and other devices that involve electricity, such as inverters that enable them to use the power from a 12-volt battery to run electronic devices. To adapt solar tech is consistent with their desire to symbolically keep the distance between their world and the larger culture that is tied to the grid. They can create electricity that is cheap and comes from a natural source and maintain their traditional distance from the rest of us.”
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