“Off-the-grid” may conjure images of die-hard survivalists, but the term actually has a spectrum of meaning.
“Now more people are starting to understand how quickly we are driving toward the edge of our ecological capacity on the planet,” said Katrina Morgan, principal architect for Fermata Consulting, a green building consulting firm. “They are not just fringe types anymore.”
Many of those disconnected from the electrical grid are living in homes powered by renewable resources like wind and solar. Some eschew other public utilities, like municipal water and sewage systems. Others forage for building materials. Many live communally. Here are a few of their stories.
“Shed” home — Western Washington
Little did Keith Callahan* know when he and his wife started building a shed on their 5-acre property, they were building their house.
Keith and his wife live in a 320-square-foot home (photo above) on a tiny island in the Puget Sound. They originally built their shed-turned-house to store belongings while they traveled in South America. “When we came home, we just moved into it and never left.”
That was eight years ago. At first their home had no insulation, no running water and no electricity — just kerosene and candles for light. But living humbly suited their “debt-free” philosophy: “We didn’t take any loans out to build it. We built it little by little.”
They now have a small solar electric system. Hot running water arrived on Thanksgiving Day 2010, in time for the birth of their son. Water comes from a rain-harvesting system on the roof. Their bathtub and shower are in their garden.
As small business owners, Keith says he and his wife straddle the off-grid world and the “Internet, cell phone, data-exchange” world. “It’s hard to keep up. You just have to experience it.”
Earthship — Taos, New Mexico
Eighteen years ago, Kirsten Jacobsen moved to Taos to build Earthships — sustainable buildings made with recycled materials such as earth-filled automobile tires, aluminum cans and glass bottles. The brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds, the Earthship exceeds LEED standards and building codes while integrating its own power, water, sewage treatment and food systems.
Jacobsen — now Education Director for Earthship Biotecture — finished her own New Mexico home in 2006. It heats and cools itself with no utility bills in a climate that reaches 100 degrees in the summer and minus 30 in the winter. She customized the functional design with “more modern-looking finishes and other things like stainless steel, a clear glass bottle-brick wall and bamboo floors in the bedroom.”
EcoVillages — Rutledge, MO and Fairfield, Iowa
Alex Whitcroft, an architectural designer from the UK, first came to Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage in rural Missouri to learn natural building techniques. He returned two years later in 2011 as one of its 60 or so residents.
Like most buildings at Dancing Rabbit, the home Whitcroft shares with his partner, Jennifer Martin, and two of her children is made with natural materials: sustainably harvested or reclaimed wood, natural plasters, and straw bales harvested from surrounding fields for insulation. “It’s very bioregional,” said Whitcroft.
While half of their community reconnected to the grid in 2011, Dancing Rabbit is net positive — producing more energy than it consumes. And there are plans to install a medium-size wind turbine within the next couple of years.
At Abundance EcoVillage near Fairfield, IA, real estate developer Amy Greenfield shares a Bergey 10 kW wind turbine and 7 kW solar array with 13 neighbors.
This type of system currently costs around $170,000. With that cost shared among many, the investment would pay off in 10 to 16 years in avoided energy bills.
“My home looks much like the typical American home,” said Greenfield. But “it uses about 90% less electricity than the average household in the surrounding area. I would never know I was living off the grid if it weren’t for the wind turbine spinning behind my house.”
Living on-grid — Oakland, CA
Off-grid isn’t for everyone. The first step towards greener living isn’t putting up photovoltaic panels, it’s changing personal behaviors.
Dan Antonioli knows this well. Twelve years ago he founded his two-house 611 EcoVillage, an on-grid household in Oakland, CA that embraces green behaviors suited to its centralized urban environment: public and human-powered transportation, hang drying, farmers’ markets and shared space.
“Energy can be seen not just from kilowatt hours and therms, it also has to be seen in all of the other ways it’s consumed. Because we share, we save.”
Antonioli, who works in the field of energy upgrading old buildings, is also renovating the rooms in the 100-year-old buildings, one at a time.
“You insulate, you tighten the building envelope, you seal the ducts and the heating system — you do these simple things, and lo and behold, all of a sudden, people are feeling comfortable in their homes, and they’re spending less money on their energy bills.”
(*Name has been changed to maintain anonymity).