Off The Grid
New technologies take alternative energy mainstream.
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Trey Kropp, a friendly man of 25, sits behind the wheel of a sturdy Toyota 4X4 as it claws its way up a rutted dirt road to Clear Ridge, a high, sun-drenched perch above the Pacific. It’s the southern, private side of the same chunk of land that forms Andrew Molera State Park. After passing through a coded gate off Highway 1 and over a narrow bridge spanning the Big Sur River, Kropp pushes his truck under some looming oaks and up a steep path, slipping past a gleaming black Suburban driven downhill by a new neighbor who just bought a big chunk of real estate on the ridge. Kropp’s just been to town and he’s got his lunch—a fat burrito and a big bottle of cold beer.
Kropp moved to Big Sur from Iowa as a kid, when his mom got a job at one of the hotels. He went to Carmel High and has taken fully to the Big Sur life of surfing and hiking and soaking up the sun and the stars. He can’t imagine a better place to live, except maybe Fiji.
Arriving at the top of the ridge, which looks north to Point Sur and south all the way to Piedras Blancas, Kropp cuts the motor. Off the crest sits a wooden yurt house with a stunning view of the Pacific. Sprinkled here and there are other houses and cabins—some just occupied on weekends, each surrounded by open, mostly steep meadows. It’s an idyllic scene. And one thing is clear. There are no power lines. Waving his arm across the ridge top, Kropp says, “Everyone from here over is off the grid.”
The cabin he rents is fully off the electrical power grid that keeps the rest of the country warm, out of the dark, and free from mornings without toast. The building itself is narrow, plunked down on a trailer frame with a hitch still poking out toward the sea. It’s warmed by a propane heater that hangs over his bed. Without electricity wired in from a distant power plant, Kropp buys propane in $8, five-gallon tanks which last about two months in the winter and longer in summer. The propane also heats the water for his al fresco bath through a wall-mounted water heater that warms only the water that’s needed immediately, water that’s pumped uphill from the Big Sur River by the ridge-top water association.
Photovoltaic panels sponge up the sun’s energy, stored as electricity in an array of batteries. Since it’s direct current (DC), it has to be run through a 1,000-watt inverter that switches it to alternating current (AC) to run lights, Kropp’s computer and his electric guitar. A charge controller ensures that the system is not overcharged, which would drain the batteries.
It’s enough to keep the lights on but it’s not quite enough to power his 47-inch television, or for DVDs and video games; they require the propane generator.
“It would be nice when I have people over to have the lights on and the music on at the same time, but I can’t do that unless I turn on the generator and that’s annoying,” he says. “It’s just a matter of having a big enough system.”
And the one appliance he doesn’t have is a refrigerator. Holding up the burrito, half-eaten during the drive up, he says, “I eat out a lot.”
Just down the road from Kropp sits another house that’s off the grid, like everyone on Clear Ridge. Steve Beck and Sydney Ocean live in a barn-shaped house four or five times the size of Kropp’s. Walking into it, you can flip on the lights and be unaware that the sun provided the juice.
Steve built the house himself. When the couple moved into the place from their home at the Esalen Institute, where they both work, they brought along a wounded chicken. Now a squad of roosters and hens patrol the yard, pecking at the ground beneath an orchard of fruit trees.
Beck grew up on a farm in North Dakota, where his dad was a small-town dentist. There, he learned how to grow the food he needs. He’s got chickens and a healthy garden but he wants to add some more.
“I have a dream to get some sheep,” he says. Now, when he wants an omelet he picks out a few eggs.
“There are days when I find myself hungry and I find myself eating from this land.”
Although he’s a competent builder, he admits he’s no electrician, so when it came time to wire the house he had to call in a professional. His power-generating apparatus is contained in a shed just down from the chicken coop.
It’s simple like Kropp’s, just a bit larger.
Since the property sits in a hollow and is not subject to drenching sunlight like Kropp’s ridgetop cabin, Beck’s solar panels are designed to follow the sun. As tubes of gas on the edges heat and cool, they add weight to one side or another, causing the solar panel to tilt toward the sun. Wires from the panel run into the shed where the electricity is stored in an array of batteries, and run through an inverter and controller, which shuts down the batteries when they become full.
“It’s a computer really,” Beck says.
In the back door of the shed sits a generator that’s never needed in the summer except to move irrigation water from a pond downhill up to the garden and orchard.
The house is designed for full southern exposure to the sun, with wide, two-foot eaves to shade the walls only when the sun is high, in summer. On cold days, it’s kept warm through the floors with a radiant-heating system that circulates warm water running in tubes laid beneath.
“It’s clean,” Beck says. “There’s no dust or fans or any of that stuff.” Turning to the thermostat on the living room wall, he says, “That just turned the floor on.”
Standing in the kitchen making a plate of eggs, Sydney Ocean says she can look outside the window when the grid power goes out in a storm and see houses on the far ridge without light while her house runs as normal.
“I wish more people did it,” she says. “I wish when they put in new housing, that it was required. It’s really fun when everybody’s power goes out. I am amazed that more people don’t do it.”
Living partly off the land around their home and off the ever-flowing energy from the sun, the couple feels more in tune with the planet.
“We just pay attention to these things more and that’s really pleasant,” Ocean says. “The biggest benefit is you just become more in touch with how the world works.”
There are other benefits to alternative energy, some political and some very practical. The electricity system that binds the rest of the nation together is a significant source of pollution. And at times it is frighteningly fragile.
On Aug. 10, 1996, a branch growing too close to low-hanging power lines in the desert of Idaho triggered a chain reaction that turned off electricity for millions in the western US, according to the official account. Last year, nearly simultaneous blackouts in the eastern US and in England left millions in the dark, much to the delight of Iraqis who’d been without electricity after the invasion. (They’d been coping by sitting in the shade and taking hour-long showers, and offered such advice to stranded and scared New Yorkers.)
In the El Niño storms of February 1998, Big Sur was cut off from civilization for weeks when mudslides and floods severed Highway 1 both north and south. While people living in places like Clear Ridge were enjoying their self-generated electricity, those on the grid in nearby Carmel were stumbling around in the dark. News reports at the time told of Big Sur folks sharing food and clearing fallen trees, doing just fine out there on their own, happily cut off from the rest of the country.
Today, off-the-grid technology—solar power units, residential hydroelectric generators and wind turbines—is gaining more and more prominence. Like any technology, research has made renewable energy sources both cheaper and more efficient.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, national consciousness of our effect on the planet has evolved from universal ignorance to widespread awareness. Through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the use of alternative energy has flourished from scratched-together systems built by hippies and back-to-the-land-types to fancy systems that are much more viable. And they are also being justified in new ways.
On April 13, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley released a study claiming that while renewable energy will reduce the national thirst for oil and natural gas, it’s also an economic engine that can create jobs. According to a news report, the Berkeley group found that a shift in federal emphasis to “green” power through various incentives and investments would create some 240,000 new jobs by 2020.
The report was released at a conference in Seattle of a group called the Apollo Alliance, a “coalition of environmental and labor groups…pushing for federal incentives to promote wind, solar and biomass power plants.” The group is hoping to use the 2004 presidential campaign to leverage its position, seeking to expand the debate over the national reliance on oil and natural gas. The group is calling on the government to devote vast federal resources, on the level of the space program, to renewable energy sources.
While the Apollo Alliance blames the current administration for an unbalanced reliance on oil exploration and extraction, the federal government does have a renewable energy campaign of its own underway.
Up in the mountains of Golden, Colorado sits the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Its a research site looking for ways to improve and implement photovoltaic, wind and biomass technology, formerly known as the Solar Energy Research Institute. Its $200 million budget has persisted through the Clinton and second Bush administrations.
Gary Schmitz, a spokesman for the NREL, says great strides have been made at the lab in recent years by reducing the cost of solar and wind power while increasing their efficiency and applicability.
In addition to perfecting new energy sources, the lab is also looking for ways to make a hydrogen-powered automobile feasible.
One thing that has prevented renewable energy from becoming widespread is its initially high front-end investment and its reliance on steady sunshine. But today, Schmitz points out, even if you don’t want to be totally off-the-grid, you can set up a home with off-the-shelf equipment and qualify for various tax and utility credits by putting energy back into the grid—a setup commonly referred to as “running the meter backwards.”
“All these technologies work and we know they work,” he says. “It’s really a matter of taking them down and making them competitive with conventional sources.”
Solar de Luxe
Clear Ridge is not the only section of Monterey County where people live beyond the reach of power lines. Further south on Highway 1, in Pacific Valley, homes and even the local school function off the grid. Further inland, some ridges of Cachagua are also bereft of power lines. And off Murray Grade, outside Palo Colorado Canyon, on a lush mountainside called Green Ridge, more people live quite comfortably without the benefit of power-plant electricity. Transmission lines run through the area and some homes are hooked in, but for some like the Williams family, the cost of extending power lines to their home cost too much compared to a system reliant almost wholly on the sun.
To get up Green Ridge one needs a reliable vehicle, preferably a 4X4, as the road is steep and twisty. Approaching the Williams home, one looks up at it through trees, at a terrace that faces south from the house.
If you could levitate above the trees you’d see two photo voltaic arrays totaling 47 panels absorbing strong sunlight. You would also see a web of black tubing, a thermal system that heats water for the outdoor pool.
“We have a pretty large system as far as solar goes,” says owner Chris Williams, an architect who grew up in Carmel and built the house over two years with the help of a carpenter and a laborer. He and his wife Susan were living in Los Angeles 20 years ago when they came up to Big Sur one Friday. They owned their $50,000 remote patch of forest by Saturday.
“We wanted to live here and we needed electricity. So we had no choice,” Chris says. They were off-the-grid neophytes, but “just read up on it.”
Susan is an interior designer. Between the two of them they designed and built what’s an efficient and well-appointed, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home with all the comforts of a house in the flatlands.
“We designed our own house and we knew what we were doing,” says Susan.
Standing in her kitchen, cleaning up after a get-together the night before, she lists the appliances wired throughout that are run off the sun: a computer, TV, dishwasher, clothes washer, fax machine and an electric typewriter. There is also a propane-powered dryer and a British-made hunk of an oven called an Aga, which has no gauges or knobs but rather two hot plates and four ovens.
If they have three or four days of overcast weather, they simply don’t run thirsty appliances from stored solar heat. In addition to electric lights they use kerosene lamps. Their only wire connection to the outside world is the telephone line.
“We are definitely off the grid,” Susan says, with a kitchen window behind her that opens out onto wilderness.
Being that far out requires a stout house. The foundation can withstand an 8.5 Richter earthquake, and because it’s in the path of wicked ocean gusts, it is designed to take 120-mph winds.
Among the measures for efficiency are double-pane windows and thick insulation in the walls and even thicker insulation in the roof.
Besides being situated to soak up the sun’s warmth throughout the day, the core of the home is heated by massive stack of a fireplace of an English design called a Rumford. It absorbs heat and lets it out gradually.
“It’s very efficient and generally fireplaces are not,” she says.
The Williamses draw off a deep well with water pulled to the surface with a solar-powered pump. The water itself comes from an deep and ancient source.
Like Sydney and Steve, the Williams see living off the grid as having more, not less, a gain, not a compromise.
“It has a lot of advantages aside from being cheaper. For one thing, we are never without power. Even in a storm we are never without power,” Chris says. “We can get to Rio Road in 25 minutes to half an hour and we can stand on this deck and not see another house. That’s a perfect combination for me.”
Besides a reliance on batteries, the only weakness in living so far out seems to be a reliance on the car. Although Chris and Susan happily walked back from Carmel after being helicoptered out during the ’98 El Niño, they would be in a bad spot without a car to get up and down the hill. With two kids in school, they make regular trips out to Highway 1 and beyond.
“We go more than we want to,” Chris says.
The Williamses say that when they left Los Angeles, they had a few acquaintances but few good friends to bid farewell. Up on Green Ridge, they have a network of families with whom they’re in constant contact. Besides sharing a unique and deliberate sense of place, they have regular interaction—for example, each home take turns hosting a reading from poet Ric Masten, a close neighbor.
“We’ve lived here 12 years and we know 25 families around here and we’re really close to all of them,” Chris says.
One such family is the Eichorns, who live down the hill and off on a knoll, surrounded by a sprawling array of gardens and orchards.
To get to their home, Peter Eichorn whips an all-terrain vehicle down a winding dirt road past a streak of foliage and mountainside which becomes lined with a curtain of lemon trees in the final stretch. Like the Williamses and the Becks, extending grid-distributed power to the house was simply out of the question. Also like his neighbors, Eichorn—a professional builder—built his own house, with the help of one other hand, over a year and ten months.
Standing out on a porch that faces west over a narrow valley and out to the sea, Peter says they rely on solar power because running power lines made the entire venture cost-prohibitive.
“We didn’t have too many choices. We basically had to,” he says.
Janie Rommel-Eichorn, a former Pan Am flight attendant and now a family therapist in Pacific Grove, adds: “We did it as a values choice. We wanted to live as conscientiously as we could.”
In addition to south-facing solar panels and a propane generator they run about four hours a week, the Eichorns built what’s known as a “rammed-earth” home. It’s one story, aligned lengthwise roughly north to south. Between wide windows are thick two-foot slabs of “rammed-earth” a combination of dirt from the building site, cement and water that Eichorn tamped down into compressed blocks. The physics of the slabs allow it to soak solar heat during the day and then release it slowly through the night. “The house is warmest from the walls in the morning,” Peter says. “It’s warmest from the sun in the afternoon.”
Another source of warmth is a greenhouse on the south end of the house beside the master bedroom. Vents along the ceiling allow hot air generated there to flow through the space. The massive front door, the doors within the house, the wood trim and the ceiling are all made from two milled-down seven-foot diameter redwoods which had fallen on the property. The ceiling is composed of long redwood strips.
“We cut the scraps up and put them in the ceiling,” Peter says.
It has not been entirely easy. The battery system tends to be the most vulnerable link in any solar system, which the Eichorns know all too well. Janie says it got to be difficult when they had company at house and the lights would suddenly shut off.
“The storage was funky,” she says. “Now that we have more storage we’re a lot more relaxed.”
The Eichorns have chickens, two goats and an orchard with 20 kinds of apple trees, peach, nectarine, cherry, almond, avocado, orange and grapefruit trees. There’s also a garden of basil, lettuce and spinach, and even heirloom tomatoes they sell to the Esalen Institute in the summertime. They have a small refrigerator but no freezer.
“It’s more important to have a garden,” Janie says.
The Eichorns, as close as they are, admit that they’re not purists. Janie drives a Volvo wagon that she wishes could be a bi-fuel vehicle like Peter’s Prius.
“You pretty much have to have a car,” Peter says. “That’s what we don’t like if there is anything.”
Although they pay nothing for the sun or the water, Peter has to go out and check the water lines, up in a steep, nearly impenetrable part of the property. It’s constant sweat equity. He grew up on a small organic farm in Redwood City and besides knowing that his land requires constant toil, he recognizes that short of living like a hermit, he can’t be a pure producer without also being somewhat of a consumer.
“To give back more than we get is almost impossible in this society,” he says. “It’s really hard not to be a consumer.”
With a reliable source of clean water, gardens and orchards that generate enough food that they can sell excess to community produce associations, and a house that well-tuned to the environment, the Eichorns don’t plan on giving up and moving back down the hill any time soon.
“People ask me, ‘Are you still down on the coast?” That’s such a crazy question to me. Have you ever seen Gone With The Wind ? This is Tara [the beloved homestead in that movie]. We’re not going anywhere.