Juliette Smith | |

Its not just Prime Minister Gordon Brown who is trying to convince Brits there’s money to be made from going green and adopting renewable energy. The Queen recently announced she was installing a ground source heat pump on her Windsor Estate, and she prowls the long corridors at Balmoral switching off lights. Then she changed her mind, because it cost too much. Now Britain’s aristocrats find their mean old ways made newly fashionable by the trends towards ecology and recycling.

Queen Elizabeth
Queen: green or just mean?

Frito-Lay’s plan to take its Arizona snack factory off the grid are driven by projected energy savings, plus the marketing advantage of being able to say its snacks are solar powered. In New Hampshire, off-grid householder Jay Flanders built his entire house from wood harvested on his property. All over Britain and America, locals are forming Carbon Reduction Action Groups to impose previously agreed penalties on those who save the least.

“We used to call it make do and mend ” said 91-year-old Edie Churchill who lives on a housing estate in East London, consumes little electricity, still scavenges for wood for her fire, and spends only 10 pounds sterling on her weekly grocery shop.

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The whole post-war generation is suffering a sense of deja vu at the burgeoning number of articles advising people to eat less foreign food, preserve more, repair broken implements rather than replace them, or use their cars less. Businesses are turning on to the eco-message for the same reason – its good for the bottom line. And media coverage of all things ecological now revels in the money you can save. Richard Black, BBC science correspondent noted approvingly that his father had worn the same pair of pyjamas since 1969.

Obsessive energy-saver Donnachadh McCarthy used to be an accountant until he found a better outlet for his psychotic scrimping. Now he is an eco-surveyor, based in London, advising companies on their wasteful use of energy.

He would have little to teach Jay Flanders. Instead of buying solar hot-water tanks, Flanders uses less expensive tanks from electrical water heaters to store his heated water.

The house was designed with plenty of windows on the flat front of the house and a roof that stretches down the entire backside to shield the structure from the colder north side. In the winter, a woodstove supplements the warmth from the sun, and a backup propane generator is on-hand in case of an emergency. The stove and refrigerator is powered by propane, but Flanders said he hopes to invest in more technology to move “off the petroleum junk.”

The family’s limited energy has forced it to think about energy consumption differently.

Flanders said his three kids always turn the lights off when they leave a room. But in the summer, when the blazing sun generates more electricity than the family can use, he encourages all of them to take longer hot showers. The house was designed with plenty of windows on the flat south-facing front of the house and a roof that stretches down the entire backside to shield the structure from the colder north side. In the winter, a woodstove supplements the warmth from the sun, and a backup propane generator is on-hand in case of an emergency. The stove and refrigerator is powered by propane.
The three kids always turn the lights off when they leave a room. But in the summer, when the blazing sun generates more electricity than the family can use, he encourages all of them to take longer hot showers.
In New Hampshire, the latest issue of the Concord Monitor newspaper tells the story of Flanders’s house in Newbury, “700 feet from the nearest utility pole, it would have cost him $5,000 to pay for the wires and poles to connect his house to the electric power grid…. Instead, Flanders spent $1,000 more on a solar energy system and panels that would provide enough electricity for his 1,500-square-foot saltbox house. Flanders used a solar pathfinder to track the sun’s path and make sure no trees or branches would block the solar panels, built onto the front of the house. Floor-to-ceiling windows allow natural sunlight into the house, and concrete floors absorb heat from the sun. A woodstove keeps it warm during the winter, at night and on cloudy days.

“It’s not mainstream yet,” Flanders said.

Much of the equipment Flanders used to build his solar system was found used on online classified websites. His solar panels were salvaged from a roof and can generate about 600 watts of power.

New Hampshire doesn’t track the number of off-grid homes in the state. Laura Richardson, who sits on the board of directors for the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association, said she knows about 30 people who generate their own power.

Richardson, who also lives off the grid, guesses there are many more.”The people that live off-grid do it for a number of reasons,” Richardson said. “Oftentimes, it’s that they want to live in a remote area and they don’t want other people to know about them. So they wouldn’t make it on my list.”

But despite the privacy that some off-the-grid homeowners seek, most of them are living normal lives, Richardson said. She and her husband have a comfortable home with all the modern conveniences they want and energy-efficient appliances.

“We’re not wacky hippies, you know?” she said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It was just a choice that made sense to us.”

Bruce Adami and Bob Cote said people are often surprised at how normal their home looks. Their house has been on the association’s Green Buildings Tour for the past three years and has received nearly 100 visitors.

“It’s an easy house to live in,” Cote said.

They invested $30,000 in their solar system, which includes two arrays of panels that each produce 1,200 watts of electricity. A computer system in the basement controls the flow of the solar power going into the batteries, and inverters change the direct-current power into alternating current, which is required to power most home appliances.

Adami, a musician, and Cote, an environmental engineer, have a regular microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator and splurged on a Viking gas stove. They have a guest bedroom and bathroom, a second-floor master bedroom, a woodworking shop in the basement and a huge, second-floor storage area.

“You wouldn’t know that this is an off-the-grid house,” Cote said.

“Except when you come up the driveway and see the solar panels,” Adami added.

Their 2,800-square-foot Deerfield home cost more than $300,000 to build, and Cote and Adami did much of the work. They hired a design consultant and worked with two local companies, KW Management and BP Solar, to create their solar energy system. Like Flanders, they used only wood harvested on the property to build the house, which is made mostly of white pine.

The south-facing house is built into the side of a hill, which protects it from the elements on the side that doesn’t receive as much warmth from the sun. Adami and Cote also take advantage of sunlight with floor-to-ceiling windows and concrete floors that absorb heat.

In the winter months, the sun is lower in the sky and light stretches nearly 20 feet from the windows to the back of their living room and kitchen, keeping the home toasty warm most of the day. But in the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, the roof’s overhang provides just enough shade to keep sunlight from pouring in, ensuring cooler temperatures.

“These are very simple things that people could do with their houses, but they have to know about it before they build it,” Cote said.

About every other day in the winter, Adami and Cote light a fire in their massive fireplace, built from stones that radiate heat long after the fire goes out. They go through about two cords of wood a year and pay nothing to heat their home.

The couple said they haven’t compromised much since moving off the grid. The only thing they would have done differently was add central air conditioning, which they realize they could have run with all the excess power their solar panels generate in the summertime.

“We haven’t figured out how to do an energy-efficient hot tub yet, but we’re working on it,” Adami said.

There are still only a handful of incentives for families to install renewable energy systems.

The U.S. Department of Energy offers a $2,000 tax credit for people who install products that improve the energy efficiency of their homes. New Hampshire offers incentives to people with renewable-energy systems that are tied into the power grid. They receive credit for excess energy they put into the grid and can use the credit to “buy” energy when they can’t generate enough power (for example, if it is cloudy outside).

Rep. Michael Kaelin, a Lyndeborough Democrat, may introduce legislation this year to provide more incentives for New Hampshire homeowners to make energy-efficient home improvements, Richardson said.

The New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association will continue to raise awareness about the benefits of renewable energy, and Richardson said she hopes the number of people trying it out will increase.

“We’re normal people, and we want to show that we can be normal and have a great lifestyle,” she said.

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

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