When the rural homesite she loved turned out to be a mile (and $80,000) from the nearest power line, Karen Fasimpaur found an alternative: solar energy. A Southwestern homesteader describes how she makes a living in the information economy while living off the grid.
When I tell people I live “off the grid,” I get a variety of responses. Many are some iteration of “Wow! That is so cool. But what does that actually mean?”
In my case, it means we are not physically connected to the electrical grid. Instead, we rely exclusively on solar power and propane to provide energy for our household.
We do have landline phones and Internet access, but the power to run all of this comes from solar. (In a future article, I will write about how we connect to the telecommunications network and some of the policies that make that possible for us.)
It was never really a goal of mine to live “off the grid,” but when we found a piece of land in eastern Arizona that we fell in love with, it turned out that it was about a mile from the nearest power lines, and there is no public policy that requires electrical companies to provide grid access. When we looked at the cost of bringing electrical power to our site, it was approximately $80,000. That made solar an easy choice for us. While the robust solar installation we ended up with will never pay for itself in terms of the electrical bills that we don’t incur, it was cheaper than bringing in a grid connection.
There are many reasons people choose to go solar. Besides environmental and cost concerns, aesthetics can be a factor. There are no electrical poles and wires obscuring the natural beauty. Other people already established here were keen that we not bring in electricity to limit the impact of development. (Folks here like their isolation, and accessible electricity might draw a disruptive number of other residents.)
Before choosing solar components, we looked at many houses that were running on solar to see the options. We found people with everything from a bare-bones set up of a couple panels and a few car batteries to much more elaborate systems.
Working in a field that required a computer and Internet connection, we hoped for a set up that was just like a “normal” house. So we needed a solar system that was more toward the deluxe end of the spectrum.
I remember vividly when we had a local solar installer talk with us. He looked at our computers and said, “You’ll never run all that on solar.”
We opted to design and configure the system ourselves. About a year later, we did, in fact, have “all that” and more running on solar.
We put considerable effort into estimating our power usage, thinking about how we could economize on power without sacrificing quality of life, and evaluating different system components that would support our needs. Our system now consists of 12 210-watt solar panels that gather and convert the sun’s energy, 24 12-volt batteries that store the electricity, and an inverter that converts the electricity into a form we can use. (It’s worth noting that people who want to go solar but are on the grid can avoid the cost of the batteries and the inverter.) Our solar system supplies nearly all of the power we need, and our batteries are generally fully charged before noon each day.
We do use propane for a few things that require large amounts of energy, like our flash hot-water heater and our stove. We have a fireplace (it’s a building code requirement to have some source of heat), but we rarely use it except for ambiance. We also have a backup generator that we seldom use.
Through this experience, I’ve come to believe that going solar is completely feasible, and I’m surprised our nation hasn’t made a bigger commitment to that goal.
One of the big lessons I’ve learned is that energy efficiency may be the most important consideration. In fact, I think that we could reduce our carbon footprint as much through energy conservation as through alternative energy sources. Energy is like many other natural resources that are priced relatively low. It’s so cheap, we don’t have an economic incentive to think much about conservation until there is a crisis.
Because our house was new construction, we could build in other ways to conserve energy. We built thick, super-insulated walls. We rarely need heat and have no air conditioning, even though it gets well below freezing in the winter and into the 100s in the summer.
We also made sure to get appliances that are energy efficient, and we use mostly compact fluorescent light or LED bulbs, which require much less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. I hang my clothes to dry outside and try to do activities that require a lot of power during the daytime hours, since we have excess solar power when the sun is up. I also cook what I can with electricity rather than on the propane stoves.
Having said that, if you came to our house, you wouldn’t really know that it was off the grid. We have normal power outlets and every kind of appliance that you can imagine. Living off the grid doesn’t have to mean living a Spartan existence or separating yourself from the information economy.
For us, it has been a very feasible and rewarding way to live.