FEATURE: Independently Powered
Is living off the grid the new American Dream?
JACKSON HOLE, WY—Without notice everything went dark one recent summer evening in Jackson Hole. Confusion swept through western Wyoming and southeast Idaho, to Idaho Falls, Rexburg and Shelley. No one knew how long it would take for the electricity to be restored, or why it went out. People searched Facebook and other social media networks for answers while Planet reporters rushed to post a story about the blackout using their smartphones. As residents wondered what happened, some pointed to the possibility of terrorists.
A major attack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, according to author Ted Koppel, in his bestselling book: LIGHTS OUT: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. In a recent CNN interview Koppel warned, “America is vulnerable, and needs to be prepared for the potential of an extreme cyberattack on the U.S. power grid.”
The outage here, however, was the result of an equipment failure at Goshen substation in Shelley, Idaho. It lasted less than five hours, a small inconvenience when considering other monster outages of the past. The northeast blackout of 2003 spanned southeast Canada and eight northeastern U.S. states. Fifty million people were affected for two days in the largest blackout in North American history. If another blackout of this magnitude occurred, how many folks would just shrug their shoulders and go about life as usual? The people in this story would ostensibly not bat an eyelash. Living in tiny, alternative spaces, these folks are rejecting America’s reliance on public energy systems and finding their own solutions to a housing emergency that has spiraled out of control.
Gordy “Gordo” Richman, for one, has taken the power into his own hands.
Richman makes his own “renewable energy.” He built his own capacitor reminiscent of mad scientist Emmett Brown and his super flux time-traveling capacitor in Back to the Future. (Quick science lesson: capacitors can store an electric charge using one or more pairs of conductors separated by an insulator.)
For seven years, Richman has lived off the grid on land he bought in 2009 between Victor and Driggs, Idaho, independent of public power sources. The power lines stop 400 feet before his gate at his neighbor’s house; they operate a conventional, utility-dependent household.
Richman was unaffected by the July 19 Goshen substation failure, while more than 42,000 people twiddled their thumbs. Many valley residents, unsure how long they would have to fend without power, flocked to some of the few open stores for necessities: Broulim’s in Teton Valley and Albertson’s in Jackson.
“The ramifications would have been far greater in the winter, given our cold temperatures and the high amount of all electric homes we have in our territory,” said Brian Tanabe, communications manager for Lower Valley Energy.
When asked about the recent power outage, Richman laughed. “I was completely unaware it happened until someone told me,” he said.
As of 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates 1.7 billion people live “off–grid” throughout the world. Almost 200,000 are households in the United States.
Literally, the term “off the grid” is defined as not requiring utilities, such as electricity, water, sewer, natural gas and heat. To truly live off the grid means a person operates their household without the assistance of any public utility services.
In the U.S. many families are dependent on utilities to power generally oversized homes. But author Nick Rosen noted, “Most families could go off the grid with as little as a half an acre, as long as it’s the right half-acre.” Rosen penned the book, Off-the-Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America.
Ideal locations, Rosen noted, include areas that have woodland, with land for agriculture, enough light for solar power and a good source of water, like a well or a stream.
Rosen cites that the average off-grid residence uses only 20 percent of the energy of a typical American home, and that folks living off-grid have lowered reliance on transportation. “Although people living off the grid still own vehicles, they use them much less frequently,” he said.
A nation of ‘unsettlers’
Traditional definitions of “settling” are shifting as more and more people in America choose utility independence. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “unsettle” as “to change from a settled condition; disrupt.” And that is what off the grid living is doing—disrupting traditional concepts of settling and conventional energy dependence.
Author Mark Sundeen’s upcoming book The Unsettlers addresses the longing in American culture to return to the land and the environment to “assuage modern ills.” He cites the human desire to nurture individual spirit and develop community, instead of turning to the distracting and isolating nature of electronics.
Essentially, Sundeen says unsettling means “simultaneously trying to disengage from the global economics that harm us all, while seeking work that is meaningful and satisfying.” Ultimately, this means surviving and subsisting by personal means, rather than grid dependence.
Energy independent people folks manage with few material things, outside services, and without conventional spaces. Many use solar panels, batteries and capacitors to supply their own power. In order to do this, all their energy sources need to be onsite, along with a generator and fuel reserves. These locations also require a water source or filtration system.
Echoing Sundeen’s concept of “unsettling,” conventional homes are starting to become a wave of the past as people seek ways to live more sustainably and in harmony with the land. “The era of 40 acres and a mule has been replaced by the era of a half an acre, a laptop and a solar panel,” Rosen said.
Off the grid living 101
Self-taught in solar power, Richman built the first phase of his home utilizing power from four used car batteries that he charged in a truck. In the winter he used snowmelt water. Richman’s definition of off-grid living is being “independent of mass produced utilities.” His house is 220 square feet, 90 of which is pure greenhouse space. He lives mostly off the land, and his thin frame and radiant smile are the opposite of his nickname Gordo.
He does, however, hang on to two shreds of utility dependence: a dish for Internet service and a propane tank out back. He says that his propane refrigerator is more efficient than conventional refrigeration.
Richman’s running water functions the same as it would in a typical house. The power goes out to the underground well and the pump that controls the pressure switch. He can store 40 gallons in a balloon-filled tank that pressurizes the water on an automated system. This is like pressure in a car tire—as the tank fills, the pressure increases against a balloon, and as you use water, the balloon pushes the water out, helping even the flow.
Richman uses hydronic heat in his house, which transfers thermal energy into glycol instead of water. “I’m my own utility company, my own generator, and my own back-up plan,” he said. “My power doesn’t go out. If there is a failure, it’s a failure on my part.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling account for nearly 50 percent of the energy consumption in an average home. “These luxuries are heavy energy users,” Richman said. Since his system runs on a smaller motor than a conventional home, he opts for a refrigerator without an auto-defrost cycle, a feature Americans have come to depend on. This means he has to manually remove ice, debris, and sometimes rodents inside the walls of his appliance.
From mid- or late October until mid-January, when the days are short, Richman says his ability to harvest power is limited. “If it is cloudy, power is scarce, so I have to be frugal, and find ways to use less power. I turn my refrigerator off during these months to preserve energy.”
His capacitor can’t power a year-round freezer, so his food has to be canned or dried. “Canning and dehydrating is the way to go, as opposed to freezing when you live on the grid,” he said. “Once it is processed, it stores the energy and the food is good.”
And he has to choose when he will vacuum or do laundry, which require a lot of power. Richman is fully dependent on the weather. If there is a 10-day spell of clouds, he has to make adjustments. “I use a 20-foot broom to clear the hot water heater and the solar panels,” he said. “If it snows while I’m away from the house, the panels get covered in snow and I don’t harvest energy.”
Richman still needs a connection to the petroleum world to access gas for his chainsaw, his truck and trailer. On bitterly cold days, Richman struggles to start his diesel truck—he doesn’t own a block heater. “This is difficult because others depend on me for snowplowing services,” he said. “They need to get out of their driveway and get to work to pay their bills for utilities. And I rely on these jobs as a source of income in the winter.”
It has only been since the 1890s, Richman likes to point out, that humans have been using light bulbs and refrigerators. In his mind, he is living conventionally in terms of human history. “I know how to work around problematic gear, and still live without power,” he said. “I can reconfigure my system, and not be powerless.”
In addition, his house is constructed of re-sold and harvested materials. “Why buy drywall?” he asked, “when there are stacks of coffee bags sitting in the corner at Snake River Roasters—these are my ceilings.”
His homegrown garden rows boast grapes, figs, plums, purple sprouting broccoli, onions, kale, garlic, turnips, squashes, and a wide variety of berries. He also grows herbs and makes homemade oils to trade and sell.
Offering up a plump, handpicked piece of asparagus, he said, “People are feeling better off-grid because they are in a better space physically, mentally. They have embarked on a different lifestyle, and that lifestyle promotes health.”
One week this summer Richman sold, gave away, and traded 70 pounds of his homegrown strawberries. He sold a large portion on the street in Victor. “I don’t look at any of it as a challenge,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”
The stressors, he says, are different and easier to manage than what many folks who lead more conventional lifestyles face. “I drive to my jobs two days a week as a property manager and caretaker for the University of Wyoming.” Consequently, he says doesn’t feel the need to ‘unwind’ at the end of the day.
“The whole cyclical mess starts with utilities,” he said. “Utilities itself is an economic term. If you promise, and can’t produce for the trade market, that is hard. If some of what I grow and build doesn’t survive, that is my only stress.”
Richman admits that his first couple years of off-grid living were trying as he learned the parameters. “You have to learn how much sunlight your system craves, to know what you have to work with,” he said.
Completely utility free
Just outside Tetonia, Idaho, Sabrina Peraza lives in a 350-square-foot off-grid wooden cabin, accessed in the winter only by ski touring or snowmobiling up Badger Creek. She pumps her own well water, and has returned to the basics, hand washing her clothing.
Peraza lives with her partner, who is the head of JH Youth Soccer League, and works as a professional traveling soccer coach in the summers. When he is traveling, she lives alone with her pets, foraging wildflowers and herbs. “I wake up when the animals wake me up. There is a shadow cast outside the well each morning so I know what time it is.”
Equipped with two solar panels that control the pressure to the well, Peraza makes coffee the old way—with mortar and pestle.
“I buy chilled goods which I can eat in a couple of days,” explained Peraza, who doesn’t own a refrigerator. However, she takes pride in managing her chosen lifestyle, now on her third year off the grid. “The smallest things are such big victories,” she said. “I feel so happy that I am getting water right now.”
It takes under a minute for Peraza to fill a two-liter jug. But without the sun, the well doesn’t pump water. She fills the solar batteries with water, which then conduct the solar electricity necessary to charge. These must be refilled every three months. She has two solar panels for lighting—she can use only 12 volts, or two light bulbs indoors with the charge. She visits the compost once a week, and goes to the well three to four times per day.
Disconnected from Internet, Peraza says it can be difficult to respond to urgent messages or access information. “I charge my technical devices—data-free cell phone, iPad and small music player—at work or the library. I use my propane hookup and two solar panels for any backup energy,” she said.
Peraza doesn’t have any attachments at home to power or sewage companies, and she is not dependent on the city for living. She uses an outhouse that is moved every few years while the standing sewage is buried. She takes her showers with buckets, wet wipes and witch hazel.
But this lifestyle isn’t new to her. “It is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “I grew up in an energy conscious family. The buckets of water we used in the shower, we then reused to flush the toilet.” For Peraza, “it has provided simplicity in a world that can be very overwhelming.”
While her life is seemingly simpler, everyday chores are more time-consuming. Peraza washes her clothes and dishes in smaller buckets, and then carries small loads to the well 50 yards away. As an avid cook, it is difficult for Peraza to live without an oven. “I miss having an oven I don’t have to chop wood for,” she said. “My love for cooking has been compromised.” Still, Peraza says the good outweighs the bad: “I get to do my dishes under a tree listening to the aspens rustle and the birds singing. It’s very peaceful and tranquil. It makes my whole life a meditation.”
Of course there are also dangers in living off-grid in a remote area. One morning climbing the ladder to her loft, Peraza was reminded of what even a simple accident might mean for someone like her. “I had just woken up and it was really early. Going down the ladder, I lost my footing, and I grabbed onto an indentation in the rungs,” she said. “I had to stand there and breathe. The high consequences of getting hurt out here by myself and how easily it is done really hit me.”
But like Richman, Peraza cites a key benefit to energy-free living that outweighs everything: improved personal health. “When you have Wi-Fi and Internet interfering, which span the whole planet, you are less in control, and you don’t really know what kind of energies you are connecting with, or if you want those in your home or your life.”
Science happens to back up Peraza’s claims. People exposed to electromagnetic radiation experienced more difficulty falling asleep, and changes in brainwave patterns were observed. According to the World Health Organization: “There is no doubt that short-term exposure to very high levels of electromagnetic fields can be harmful to health.”
Exposure to non-thermal radio frequency radiation from Wi-Fi and cellular phones in the home may disrupt normal cellular development (especially fetal development), affect brain waves, neutralize sperm and impact fertility. In May a seminal study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a federal group under the National Institutes of Health, identified links between cancer and chronic exposure to the radiation emitted from cell phones and wireless devices.
A van named Pancho
Becca Bredehoft and Cade Palmer are paraglide instructors for Jackson Hole Paragliding. They live in a 6- by 12-square-foot space on wheels with a hundred-year-old barn wood floor. They affectionately call their hi-tech Sprinter van “Pancho.”
“Over the years,” Palmer said, “we have watched rent go up and up, and it’s harder to find a place to live.” Like the narrative in Sundeen’s book, they are seeking to “unsettle,” to be less tied to the house they inhabit, as well as the land it is situated on. This allows them mobility for their work, and less dependency on energy and outside services to maintain their lifestyle.
While their situation is not truly off-grid living, the couple has made careful strides towards this lifestyle. They survive mostly by the solar panels they have built into Pancho’s roof, and jugs of water they cart from friends’ houses or the grocery store. “We’ve built it as our home,” Bredehoft explained. “It was a huge investment. It was the equivalent of putting a down payment on a house.” The two estimate it will take them at least five years to pay off the van.
The couple lives with a fridge, a sink with running water, but no toilet. Their custom ceilings and cabinetry are made from reclaimed redwood and reused deck materials, and other natural, sustainable materials, along with wool insulation.
“Being in a tiny space makes you constantly inventory everything. It leaves you with less to tie you down to traditional housing,” Palmer explained, while Bredehoft joked about their “tiny garage,” an attachable trailer that hauls their 15 paragliders, motorcycle, and two cruiser bikes.
Although they use water and do laundry at friends’ houses, and take showers at the gym, they are mostly energy independent with a full solar setup. This powers the refrigerator, water pump, and provides power to charge their cameras and computers.
Each morning, rain or shine, Palmer hoists himself onto Pancho’s roof to clean the solar panel so it can perform at maximum efficiency; if it gets dirty it doesn’t work as well. In a downpour or when the valley sees sub-zero temps, this becomes a challenge.
They must also be careful not to overuse the expensive solar panel batteries to avoid shortening the batteries’ lifespan. This is a delicate balance.
Yes, van life is not glamorous. It takes patience and a dedicated focus to be organized and frugal with your belongings. The couple says they miss having a garden too, and have to substitute this luxury with frequent farmer’s market visits. It is impossible for them to live off the land.
Definitions of off-grid living can vary. “When I hear people say ‘off the grid,’ I think they are talking power,” Palmer said, “but I consider the grid more than that.” He referenced the lengthy time many spend on paying utility bills and maintaining their services, calling for repairs and upgrades.
“We will see more free time in the future,” he said. “So far, we have been spending most of our time building. Eventually, it will give us more time because when your house is already with you, you are not commuting for work, or to maintain or fix it.”
Palmer also cites his sleep cycle and improved wellness living off-grid. “The van is as quiet as the environment around us. There is nothing to disturb you while you sleep. You don’t realize how many of the systems in houses cause noise that disrupt your innate cycles.”
The couple charges their devices during the day, rather than at night, to keep their environment as natural as possible. The water pump is their only item that has a light, but it stays off, unless in use.
Neither Bredehoft nor Palmer foresee a return to an orthodox living situation. “We are more nomadic. We are disconnecting ourselves from the land. We are connected to wherever we go,” Bredehoft said. “We are unsettling. ”
Energy and adaptation
The U.S. is currently dependent on three main power grids, 70 percent of which are more than 25 years old, according to the Daily Caller News Foundation. The main power grids are valued at trillions of dollars, and are not financially feasible to replace with U.S. debt currently at $18 trillion.
Forging into the future, Lower Valley Energy has teamed up with the Town of Jackson and Teton County to form Energy Conservation Works. Lower Valley’s Tanabe says the energy cooperative is implementing initiatives toward providing progressive services, such as zero to low-interest loans for energy efficiency, upgrading public buildings, and natural gas filling stations for vehicles.
The energy company has two low-impact hydro facilities in the southern part of its territory—one in Bedford, WY, and another in Afton, WY—and is involved with wind farms in Wyoming and Idaho. “I think there always has and always will be a demographic that is very interested in grid independence. We seek that as a country, so it stands to reason we would also seek that individually,” Tanabe said.
Off-grid living is a lifestyle that requires planning and forethought. “You’re giving yourself a lot to do if you’re running your own power plant, dealing with your own water supply, disposing of your own waste and pulling your own food,” Rosen said.
Living off-grid also means, however, surrendering to a lack of control. Richman summed up the dilemma: “While we are not dependent on the grid system, we are completely at the mercy of the weather, the availability of wood and water, the sun, and the batteries that power our solar panels.”
Peraza also doesn’t advise people to leap into utility-independent living, but rather to take it one step at a time. “Start with turning your phone off, unplugging, and making time for one or two things you wish you had time for,” she said. “It’s really about getting back to your roots, and the core of living very modestly; you can feel that in your body.” PJH