high rise office but a green heart
Chicago Trib promotes off-grid

The off-grid world is going mainstream in the US, as this story shows – reprinted from the Chicago Tribune March 8th and LA Times, April, yes April, 10th —

More warming to off-grid living
People who live without access to the electric grid that powers most homes don’t have to exist like rural pioneers, thanks to solar energy and other alternatives

By Clarke Canfield
Associated Press
Published March 7, 2005

BINGHAM, Maine — Just because Richard Roberts and Martha Maloney live more than two miles from the nearest power line doesn’t mean they have to read by candlelight and take cold showers.

One day this winter, with the temperature at 8 degrees and whipping winds making it feel 20 degrees colder, Roberts and Maloney were warmed by the fire in their 25-year-old wood-burning stove and the heat from three propane heaters.

Solar panels in a field outside their home give them power for their electric lights, computer, stereo, TV, blender and other devices. Their refrigerator and kitchen stove run off propane. They heat their water using copper tubing that runs through the wood stove.

Living off the electric power grid can conjure up images of life on the frontier, without the simplest of luxuries like a hot shower. But out here, off a dirt road, the husband and wife say they don’t lack for anything–except electric bills–while being self-sufficient and easy on the environment. Even if they could connect to the power grid free of charge, they wouldn’t do it.

In many regions, power lines wind their way to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, but within that grid of power lines are lots of gaps the wires don’t reach.

Many people who own homes in those gaps use alternative energy sources because of the high cost–$45,000 to $70,000 per mile, sometimes even more, to extend lines to a home, depending on the landscape–to connect to the grid.

Other people who live within reach of power lines choose to use alternative power for philosophical or political reasons.

Nobody tracks how many people live off the grid. But it is thought the number is on the rise as technology improves and prices go down for solar power and as people move to outlying areas in search of land that is affordable, albeit removed from the power grid.

Richard Komp, president of the Maine Solar Energy Association, estimates that more than 1,000 homes in Maine are off the grid, not including seasonal camps and summer cottages. The Maine Public Utilities Commission is working with Komp to come up with an exact number of homes that use solar power, either off the grid or as a supplemental power source.

Floyd Severn, the owner of Maine Solar in Starks, Maine, has a state map on his wall with several hundred pushpins showing where he has installed residential solar power systems since 1975. The pins are in every county, as well as on remote islands off the coast.

Severn, whose house and business are half a mile from the nearest power line, said he personally knows hundreds of people who live off the grid. Severn uses solar panels, perched prominently atop his roof, for his home and business, which have 5,700 square feet of space between them.

The inside of Severn’s home looks like it’s out of a home design magazine–not what you might imagine for a home off the grid. He even has an Italian espresso machine and a red cedar sauna.

This, he said, gesturing to the surroundings, shows that people don’t have to give up anything to live off the grid.

In Manchester, Tom Bartol and his wife and young son live in a 2,200-square-foot saltbox home they built in 2003 that has solar power. While many solar power systems can cost more than $25,000, Bartol installed his for $10,000, just $2,000 more than it would have cost to connect his home to the power grid, he said.

Bartol said many people view folks who live off the grid as “hippies or granola-heads.” But he said his family simply wants to make efficient use of Earth’s finite resources.

“I think there’s a misconception that you have to have this solar-looking house or live this crazy lifestyle,” he said.

Nationally, the hotbeds of solar energy include California, Nevada, Texas, New Jersey and other places that offer tax breaks and other incentives and have laws that encourage it, according to Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society in Boulder, Colo.

Alternative energy is also growing in places where the power supply is less predictable. Californians still recall the rolling brownouts of a few summers ago. And Mainers cannot forget the ice storm of 1998 that left 700,000 people in the dark.

“I think people in northern New England like to be self-sufficient to the best of their abilities. You see that in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine,” Collins said. “And this is a technology that allows you to be self-sufficient.”

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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