Off the electricity grid, Bob Dress and Lynn Meadows of Ukiah, Calif., use photovoltaic cells to power an energy-efficient, sod-covered home.
Home-Grown Energy's Time to Shine
By Patricia Leigh Brown , January 24, 2001
UKIAH, Calif., Jan. 18 - Down a 32-mile dirt road, where turkey vultures ride the thermals above fir-fragrant hills, there is a corner of Northern California blissfully immune from rolling blackouts, Stage 3 power alerts, melting ice cream and frozen alarm clocks.
In this home of back-to-the-landers and hippies in hiding, a wee bit of smugness has set in among those who make their own electricity and like it that way - people like Dale Glaser, 56, a retired teacher who, he said, came here 30 years ago to "unplug from society." He lives in a seven-sided yurt with an indoor hammock and is completely off the conventional power grid.
"I knew what is happening was coming," Mr. Glaser said of the state's bad energy karma, as he stood beside his sprawling high-tech solar array and Air 403 windmill. "It's about taking responsibility. You become the power plant."
In recent days, millions of Californians have found themselves systematically thrown off the grid. Not Mr. Glaser. He and nearly 100 neighbors hidden in the hollows above the Mendocino coast, 110 miles north of San Francisco, moved here in the 1970's to embrace many alternatives, including alternative energy.
Here and in other active pockets, including Taos, N.M., the fierce but tiny ranks of off-the-gridders have largely comprised "the Birkenstock, granola-eating crowd," in the words of Daniel Kammen, an associate professor of energy and society at the University of California and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the university.
Now, that may change. It has become easier to live off the grid, Mr. Kammen said, because the prices of alternative energy systems, especially photovoltaic panels, have decreased and their efficiencies have improved.
"Solar systems have typically cost between 15 and 18 cents for every kilowatt generated," Mr. Kammen said. "Five years ago, when conventional power cost 4 to 5 cents an hour, that sounded terrible. But with prices for fossil fuel power as high as 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour and higher, it's now suddenly wildly more competitive."
New incentives, like a state rebate - only for those connected to the grid - help provide for the installation of photovoltaic panels, small wind systems and fuel cells that operate on renewable fuels. About 30 states, including California, also have laws to give consumers credit toward their utility bills when they generate electricity back into the grid, known as spinning the meter backwards.
In Berkeley, Gary Gerber, a contractor who installs solar and other energy-efficient equipment, is getting a lot of desperate phone calls these days. "As soon as the lights go off, the light bulb goes on," he said.
The grid has long been the bane of back-to-the-landers here, who in the Hatfield-McCoy days of the early 1970's used to cut down the power wires for fencing. ("Nice piece of wire," recalled Ross Burkhardt, an early energy pioneer.)
But historically, the grid is a relatively new phenomenon, said David Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Until the 1930's and 1940's, when the public power movement brought electricity to rural areas, "there wasn't a grid," Mr. Freeman said. Now, it covers the vast majority of the country.
Mr. Freeman, who once ran the Tennessee Valley Authority, said that Silicon Valley businesses revving up their own emergency generators were the latest indication that self-sufficiency might no longer be confined to hippies.
"If the old order keeps sputtering, the new order - self-generation - will come in," he said. "And it ought to."
Ideally, he added, consumers will use an array of alternative power sources, with the grid as a backup.
Here in Mendocino County, on rural routes christened Fred MacMurray Lane and Toosteepta Drive, Mr. Glaser and his neighbors pioneered a scrappy, self-sufficient life independent of the grid that seems suddenly prescient.
Mr. Glaser's shelter has evolved from the days when friends lived in tepees and a sink was defined as a hole lined with rocks. In the beginning, his power was cobbled together from golf-cart batteries, garden spray nozzles and used solar panels propped with a stick. Now, his washer-dryer, toaster, blender, vacuum cleaner - he does not skimp on appliances - are run exclusively by the sun and wind and water from a nearby pond.
"It was about making a statement," he said. "To me the sun has always been the energy of the future."
No one knows precisely how many people across the country are living completely off the grid. "They're very hard to find," said Richard Perez, editor of Home Power: The Hands-on Journal of Homemade Power, published every other month and based in Ashland, Ore. "They don't pay electric bills."
Mr. Perez estimated that at least 8,000 families are living off the grid in California, and more than 45,000 families nationally, with Humboldt and Mendocino Counties in California as the hotbeds. The cost of an average solar system for a family of four is $14,000 to $18,000, he said.
In this rugged landscape, where traveling to see a neighbor can feel a bit like going on safari, electrical independence seems hard-won.
"Every day is a power issue for us," said Lynn Meadows, 49, a physician's assistant, who lives with her husband, Bob Dress, a carpenter, in a circular handbuilt house with a garden on the roof. "We're always aware of power - how much we're using, what the weather's doing, how the batteries are holding up, whether the pond is overflowing.
"You can't turn the dryer on when the computer is on or it will erase everything."
The state's energy travails seem distant in this land of hot tubs and wood stoves, where driveways come with signs like "You're on Holy Ground: Mother Earth." But it has put residents here, who are keenly aware of the earth's cosmic energy, or qi, in a philosophical mood.
"We're a species of convenience," said Urmas Kaldveer, 59, a teacher and environmental scientist. "But there's a price to pay."
Tracking the nuances of nature, Mr. Kaldveer noted, is demanding. He recalled an incident in which a bear bit through his gravity-fed water line, and only he could fix it.
"It's muddy, it's cold, and you're slipping on the sides of the creek," he said. "Suddenly you see bear marks and say, `What's my karma here?' Our culture is not used to addressing situations like that."
Off-the-gridders here are nostalgic about the days when they used car batteries to power up Crosby Stills Nash & Young on the stereo. And the turmoil buffeting the state has brought a pervasive sense of luck.
"At the time it seemed the wisest thing to do, to live more softly and make fewer demands," Mr. Kaldveer said. "Now, we have all the energy we need."
Sitting snugly in her yurt, Ms. Meadows added, "We're the only safe place."
About an hour west of here, in the woods near Mendocino, Michael Potts, author of "The New Independent Home: People & Houses That Harvest the Sun, Wind & Water" (Chelsea Green), was comfortably ensconced in his off-the-grid home, feeling a Zen calm as power cutbacks swirled around him.
He has become suddenly popular among friends on the grid, he reported by telephone. Even if the power is out on Sunday, Mr. Potts said, "I'm going to be watching the Super Bowl."
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© 2001 by Neil Mishalov