I have been living in a solar powered and solar heated home for the past 17 years. If I count the previous 5 – 7 years when I lived in remote non-electrified cabins, then I’m approaching 25 years of living “off-grid.”

For those not yet familiar with this term, the “grid” refers to the network of electric wires that are strung from power plants to houses and factories and back again. To be off-grid is to be independent of this network and to produce, store, and utilize one’s own power. Options for doing so use photovoltaics (solar panels), wind generators, hydroelectric generators, gasoline generators, propane gas, or even human-generated power. Most off-grid homes use a combination of energy generation, and each one is uniquely different. I chose to depend primarily on solar because I did not have a stream on my property, solar panels have no moving parts to repair 100 feet up in the air, and sunshine is plentiful for much of the year, even in the Adirondacks. I also have a back-up gasoline generator and use propane for cooking and hot water.

Even though I designed and built my home long after solar power became available, there still were only a handful of places to buy the modules, batteries, and inverters necessary to set up a system. There were plenty of pioneers ahead of me, but I’m happy to say with state and federal subsidies encouraging grid-tied solar systems, there are many more options today (and prices are actually lower than they were 15 – 20 years ago).

Starting from scratch, I had the ability to locate an appropriate site that has a south-facing slope. I designed the house with plenty of south-facing windows for passive solar heating and excellent day-lighting, a concrete slab floor to store the heat, and good insulation in the walls and roof. I located my first panels (270 watts) on the south wall of the house with the batteries and inverter in my basement. Years later when my son was born I added another 240 watts and a few more batteries. Though I have never felt like much of an electrician, I was fortunate to buy my equipment from a small company that assists owner-builders like myself. I’ve managed to follow their directions successfully.

Now that I’ve lived in an energy independent home for 17 years, I can confidently tell people that it is not only possible, but very comfortable to do so. I have many of the comforts of any household: a computer, printer, stereo, DVD player, refrigerator, freezer, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, blender, deep well pump, and various power tools. The principal difference is that I’m constantly aware of how much power I’m generating and using. This might seem like yet another burden in our ever busy lives, but truthfully it puts me much more in touch with the weather, the cycle of seasons, and my own electric needs. Living off-grid is a lifestyle that is certainly not for everyone. There is a certain amount of tending, inventing, and problem-solving involved. But there is also a level of satisfaction for being self reliant and energy conscious. I am pleased that my eight-year-old son is the first to turn off a light and is concerned about “running the batteries down”. Future generations will surely benefit.

Conservation is the first consideration for any energy independent home. Lights are only on where they’re needed (in my house these are all low energy compact florescent light bulbs), all appliances like my washing machine are energy-star rated or better, I hang my clothes to air dry, and propane gas is used instead of electricity to generate heat (for cooking and hot water). During the winter months when sun is scarce, I monitor my battery charge closely. I become even more careful with my use, and run a gas generator when necessary to keep the batteries from becoming depleted. Over the years this has added up to about 10 hours of generator time per winter.

As an advocate for alternative power, I take pride that I created a home that has a small footprint, and is a successful example of a mainstream energy independent home that works. But I am definitely not the only one! There are dozens of off-grid and on-grid solar homes in my local area. Some of us have gathered together to host a solar home tour as part of the American Solar Energy Society’s National Tour of Solar Homes in early October (check out www.ases.org) We’re all happy to share our experiences with those who are just curious, as well as those folks planning their own projects.

Probably the most common question I hear is about cost. How much? (Probably about $4-6000 over the years) and how does this compare with being connected to National Grid? This is always a loaded question that I can’t answer simply. Electricity in New York State is 13 cents a kilowatt and nationally is considered quite high. It takes a lot of sunshine to produce a kilowatt of electricity. Because my home is designed to be energy conservative, if I were connected to the grid, my bills would be quite low. But I generally answer that the true cost of producing that electricity is not covered in 13 cents. Acid rain, mercury contamination, and strip mining of coal are not accounted for; global climate change and wars in the Middle East are not considered. It is not possible for our society to continue consuming cheap, readily available energy at our current pace. All homes can utilize simple practices for energy conservation: change incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent (or better yet, newer LED bulbs), replace energy hog appliances with energy star rated ones, turn off lights and computers when not in use… If you’re able to do more, consider a grid-tied system or even energy independence. We as consumers must be committed to making a change, and change begins at home.

– Nancy Bernstein

Nancy Bernstein is a PROTECT board member who has drawn the maps for the Adirondack Explorer for many years, is a builder of timber frame homes, recently spent three months in Nicaragua building a school with native materials, and is a skier, canoeist, hiker and camper.