A typical off-grid setup, with solar and wind systems, costs thousands of dollars. An upscale system in a house of 2,000 square feet, for instance, costs more than $23,000 to purchase and install.
That’s how much Lauris Phillips, 48, and Jay Peltz, 46, paid to power their house in Redway, just outside Garberville.
“It can be expensive, but the equipment pays for itself after several years,” said Peltz, standing under a canopy of solar panels in a patch of sunlight. Peltz is an acclaimed solar-panel consultant who recently set up a biological-research center in Ecuador.
Technology aside, Peltz said, the movement owes itself, in part, to texts like Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” the classic 1854 study of self-sufficient living. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote. The same is true of many off- gridders, but while self-reliance is its own reward, Peltz emphasized, the biggest appeal is cost: After several years, you save more than you’ve spent.
“I’ve saved $200 a month for the last 20 years,” Parkinson said. “That’s my kids’ education right there that I would have given to PG&E.”
Passive solar buildings have been in use since the 1940s, when World War II quickened an energy crunch that led Americans to seek out alternative power sources. In 1954, Bell Laboratories invented solar panels to strengthen phone signals, but the technology didn’t reach homes until the ’70s.
Although the United States is the birthplace of the off-grid movement, Japan is the top producer of solar technology, and Germany also invests more heavily, which Peltz believes will reduce those countries’ trade deficits, produce jobs and lessen their reliance on oil imports.
Lobbying from solar advocates will help the United States retake the lead, Peltz said. Such lobbying intensified in 1980 with the first off-grid house on a college campus, constructed at Humboldt State University when students formed the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. Today CCAT — the campus’ largest organization — is renowned for its quirky alternative-energy projects, such as pedal-powered exercise-bike laptops, blenders and VCRs.
The center, which has an annual budget of $34,000 that doubles every five years, installed solar panels in 1984. Controversy struck in 2000 when the students chose to plug back into the grid to earn rebates from PG&E, contribute energy to the power company and ease the grid’s overall load.
“It makes the whole thing cheaper,” said Richard Engle, a Humboldt State research engineer. “CCAT could stubbornly stay off the grid and tout renewable energy as ‘sticking it to the man,’ but we — those supporting the move — felt it sent a more powerful message” to supply additional energy to the grid.
With the recent passage of a campuswide initiative, students now pay $10 per semester to get the entire college off the grid by 2043.
A major reason for the off-grid trend’s growth in Humboldt is real estate. Acres of scenic land are beyond the grid’s reach, and off-grid technology allows for settling just about anywhere.
There’s also the cash crop industry. “Honestly, the marijuana industry is a big factor,” said Jim Zoellick, another Humboldt State engineer. “Back in the ’80s, there were people living in the hills growing pot, and they didn’t want the grid coming out because they didn’t want PG&E running their meters. The marijuana industry was a tremendous market.”
Still another reason is fear.
After the paralyzing blackouts that struck California in 1996 and 2001 and the Y2K hysteria about technological collapse come midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, more urbanites moved off the grid.
Another oft-cited factor is the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the fallout from which has inspired people to rethink the invincibility of cities.
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