Pioneers show Americans how to live off-grid

With energy prices going through the roof, an alternative lifestyle powered by solar panels and wind turbines has suddenly become more appealing to some. For architect Todd Bogatay, it has been reality for years.

When he bought this breezy patch of scrub-covered mountaintop with views to Mexico more than two decades ago, he was one of only a few Americans with an interest in wind- and solar-powered homes.

Now, Bogatay is surrounded by 15 neighbours who, like him, live off the electricity grid, with power from solar panels and wind turbines that he either built or helped to install.

“People used to be attracted to living off-grid for largely environmental reasons, although that is now changing as energy prices rise,” he said, standing in blazing sunshine with a wind turbine thrashing the air like a weed whacker overhead.

Spry and energetic, Bogatay makes few sacrifices for his chosen lifestyle. He has a small, energy saving refrigerator, but otherwise his house is like any other, with satellite television and a computer with internet service.

“Electric and gas are going to skyrocket very soon.
There are going to be more reasons for doing it, economic reasons,” he said.

Bogatay and his neighbours at the 50-hectare development are among a very small but fast-growing group of Americans opting to meet their own energy needs as power prices surge and home repossessions grow.

Once the domain of a few hardy pioneers, the dispersed movement is now attracting not just a few individuals and families, but institutions and developers building subdivisions that meet their own energy needs.

“It has its roots in 1970s hippy culture and survivalism, but it has now superceded that completely,” said Nick Rosen, a trend analyst and author of the book How to Live Off-Grid.

“Because of technology advancing ... and because of high house and energy prices ... there are a lot more people moving off grid.”

Incentives, falling costs

Rosen estimates that there are as many as 350 000 US households meet their own energy needs, and growing at 30% a year.

“As people are losing their homes, or finding the rent or mortgage too much to pay, they are choosing the off-grid alternative because it is so much cheaper,” Rosen said

While installation costs for the solar panels, wind turbines, converters and batteries needed to power up an off-grid home were prohibitively expensive a few years back, improved technology and ramped up production has driven down costs significantly.

Popular solar-powered systems are made by Sharp, Kyocera and silicon Valley-based Nanosolar, among others, and according to the website Low Impact Living, installation costs have fallen by more than 80% over 20 years.

“The cost is falling all the time as there is more and more manufacturing plant coming onstream. In fact, there may even be a glut in solar panels next year which would be very good news for the consumers,” said Rosen.

Denmark’s Vestas Wind Systems is one of the leaders in wind turbine technology. Ten US states, from California in the West to New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the eastern seaboard, offer incentives including grants and tax credits for solar panel installation under policies seeking a shift to renewable energies.

Power utilities such as Arizona Public Service, the principal subsidiary of Pinnacle West Capital Corp, is among utilities in several US states that offer subsidies to consumers planning to meet their own power needs, so as to ease demand for a growing on-grid customer base.

“Not only is it getting cheaper to generate non-grid electricity, but it’s getting cheap and comfortable to set up your off-grid home, and there are even bonuses from your local utility company for doing so,” Rosen said.

Following the money

One clear sign that the off-grid lifestyle is moving more mainstream is that developers and other organisations starting to look at off-grid alternatives, drawn by both environmental arguments and simply the bottom line.

Lonnie Gamble, a developer behind an off-grid subdivision in rural Iowa called Abundance Ecovillage, offers plots at $40 000 that include free wind and solar power from shared systems, as well as water from a rainwater collection system, waste recycling and access to shared amenities including a farm.

The cost of building such a home is little different from that of building any other home, and with a range of energy sipping appliances such as refrigerators, hi-fis and even hairdryers now available, the forced austerity associated with off-grid living is also changing.

“You can have hot showers and a cold beer,” said Gamble. “You have no water bill, no sewer bill, no power bill and you can harvest something fresh from the greenhouse ... why would you ever do anything else?”

They are not alone. The Los Angeles Community College District, meanwhile, is steering a drive to take all nine of the district’s campuses off-grid this year.

Larry Eisenberg, the district’s executive director for facilities planning and development, estimates that, with a combination of incentives including tax credits, grants and rebates, switching to alternative energy will not cost them anything, and will save them $10-million a year in power costs going forward.

“When we began, it was to fulfil our sustainable mandate and fulfil our alternative energy policy, but it eventually became a budget strategy,” Eisenberg said, adding that it also had educational value for the district’s 180 000 students, who can study the shift as part of their curriculum.

Continuing growth

With rising power prices, falling installation costs, and a web of incentives to switch, analysts like Rosen believe the number of users turning to off-grid living in the United States is set to grow to four to five million in the next five to 10 years.

“I don’t think we are going to see half the population of America going off-grid, ever. But I do think, we are going to see continued growth,” he said.

Rosen also believes that more people still hooked up to the utilities will switch to energy saving appliances, saving money and becoming “off-grid ready” in the process.

For those who have already embarked on the adventure and have adapted to a lifestyle of eking out their energy sources, with houses designed to maximise light, retain warmth or circulate air for cooling, there is no turning back.

“I like being my own power company,” said Chris Allen, a neighbour of Bogatay’s who has lived off-grid for several years.

“I wouldn’t take their electricity if they brought it to my back door. Living like this is financially and mentally very healthy.” - Reuters

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