Unplugged – living without electricity generated by utilities

Unplugged – living without electricity generated by utilities

Hannah Holmes

Although the home of Peter and Chris Talmage sits in a Maine birch forest far from any power lines, there are no smoky kerosene lanterns dangling from its rafters, no buckets of bath water warming on the woodstove. In the open, airy house the stereo is playing country music; somewhere a vacuum cleaner is buzzing, and in the home office a computer is glowing. The privation and makeshift lifestyle that many people imagine go plug-in-socket with off-the-grid living are conspicuously absent.

But the house’s oddly shaped electrical outlets hint at something out of the ordinary. The Talmage house runs on a hybrid energy system that draws power from two battery banks charged by rooftop solar panels and a wind generator. A thermometer mounted on an overhead water pipe monitors the solar water heater. The thick walls are superinsulated; combined with south-facing windows and water circulating from the rooftop heater, they allow the Talmages to heat their home with only one and a half cords of wood a year.

The appliances themselves are a little unusual: the big Sun Frost refrigerator/freezer is ten times as efficient as standard models. The Ifo toilets flush with quarts, not gallons, lightening the water pump’s load. The microwave is wired to a switch, so that its pointless little clock can be shut off when not in use. In the barn, where Peter builds custom solar- and wind-powered energy systems for other grid fugitives, the drills and saws have been adapted to run more efficiently; even the big telescope in the observatory revolves, poetically, on stored solar power. In the 16 years that the Talmages have been building this house and its electrical system, they’ve never had an energy crisis. The photovoltaic panels need little attention, and the modern nickel-cadmium batteries are, says Peter, “safe enough to take to bed with you.” The only big sacrifice in the Talmage household is to occasionally forego doing the laundry. “In a long cloudy spell, we don’t consider using the washer,” Peter grins.

With new technology, it’s easier than ever to free yourself from the commercial power grid–and there is no shortage of good reasons for doing so. Coal-fired plants generate 56 percent of U.S. electricity, releasing 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, and pouring out clouds of sulfur that contribute mightily to acid rain. The usual substitutes–natural gas, oil, nuclear, and hydro–are cleaner, but far from benign.

Wasted wattage is another good reason to get off the grid if you can. Almost half the energy that utilities generate is lost between the power plant and your outlet. And the ease with which energy reaches our homes encourages a second round of waste. “Because of the |magical’ supply of electricity, we use inefficient appliances,” says Stephen Morris of Real Goods Trading Company, a California supplier of alternative-energy equipment. “We don’t see the consequences.”

Real Goods estimates that 100,000 people have chosen energy independence, 20,000 of them for year-round homes–a category that’s growing at 15 to 20 percent a year. Many grid-busters use solar power, but wind generation and “micro-hydro” systems are also possibilities.

The price can be steep–a minimal package of solar panels and batteries can set you back a thousand dollars or so, and a family-size system that includes super-efficient appliances might cost about $15,000. Homes that are some distance from the grid are the likeliest candidates for going it alone, since utility hookups in remote areas can be fearsomely expensive–$10 a foot or more–making independence a bargain. Complete freedom from the power company isn’t cost-effective for city dwellers, though with energy costs rising, a few solar panels on the roof can lower the bills.

October is National Energy Awareness Month–a good time to try loosening your ties to the power company. But you needn’t snip the wires to lessen your dependence; before making a major investment in alternate energy, try lowering your energy use. One sure bet is screwing in energy-efficient compact-fluorescent light bulbs, which are about six times as efficient as incandescent bulbs and last much longer. Set the water-heater thermostat to 120 degrees, and insulate the tank. Fill unused parts of the fridge with jugs of water; clean the gaskets and make sure they seal tightly. When your power-gadgets expire, revert to their hand-powered predecessors: alarm clocks, food mills, and push lawn mowers. Get a solar recharger and use rechargeable battery-powered devices whenever you can. And when you come to the end of your efficiency list, throw the breaker for a day, and see what else you can live without.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Sierra Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group