Lydia Polzer |

Humboldt student dorm pedal generator

One Sunday a few weeks ago Linda Parkinson in Humboldt County, California did what few homeowners in this storm-battered region could: She turned on the television, reports the San Francisco Chronicle in a breathless article about the rise of off-grid living all across America.

While most residents were reeling from power outages left by devastating rains, Parkinson had electricity provider to spare. She cooked a feast for a dozen people, took hot showers and threw video-game parties for her 15-year-old son’s classmates.

For 24 years, Parkinson, 49, has lived completely off the electric grid, drawing energy exclusively from solar, propane and other renewable fuels on-site power sources.

She isn’t alone. There are some 180,000 American homeowners live off-grid, according to Richard Perez, publisher of Home Power magazine,. Approximately a quarter live in California, and each year the national number grows 33 percent, according to the publisher’s database of known off-gridders and estimates of those unreported.

“California is the hotbed of off-grid systems,” he said.

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Everybody in California is jumping on the off-grid life it seems. At Humboldt University, a few miles from Parkinson’s home, the students have set up a completely off-grid dorm, powered a few hours a day by their own physical effort, turning a half dozen cycle dynamos.

Parkinson maintains that the movement is no longer a hippie fad; it’s increasingly mainstream and propelled by Americans’ desire to eliminate electric bills, keep homes juiced during blackouts, minimize U.S. dependence on fossil fuel and, for activists, send a gesture of defiance to the power companies.

“It’s about self-sufficiency,” she said, relaxing on the couch in her secluded home. “Living off the grid doesn’t mean being disconnected. If anything, I’ve had an advantage. The power goes out a lot around here,” and she still manages to crank household appliances.

In the wireless era, Parkinson said, technology both frees us up and plugs us in, and the off-grid choice is not a retreat from technology but an application of it.

Over the past few months, the off-grid movement has burst into pop-culture awareness: Several online groups have formed with tips on industrial refrigeration, lighting and rainwater distillation; there’s a series of new off-grid design books; and the U.S. Department of Energy hosted in October its second design competition for off-grid architects.

A recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a lobbying organization based in Washington, D.C., found that an increase in America’s alternative-energy investment, after 15 years, would create almost 150,000 jobs, increase wages nearly $7 billion, reduce carbon-dioxide emissions roughly 30 percent and save close to $30 billion in electric and gas bills.

The technology that frees a homeowner from PG&E bills includes rooftop panels that absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity, which is then stored in batteries and Energy Saving Light Bulbs; spinning wind turbines that generate electricity; and gravity-based plumbing that sends creek water and rainwater through pipes funneled into an irrigation pond.

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