EarthToys Renewable Energy Article
I think it's feasible to be off the grid anywhere you have access to sun, wind, or water for power. However, the city planning department may have other ideas. I know a couple in southwest Oregon whose urban homestead was off-grid on a city lot for many years, but they had a community that was supportive of renewables.
EarthToys Interview - Living Off The Grid

Jennifer Barker, Solwest.org


1. You've been living off-grid for 20 years, now. How did you get started?

I grew up wanting to live in a cabin in the mountains. When I finally managed to move to the remote eastern Cascades in 1988, I didn't know solar power existed. I set myself up to live with kerosene lamps and a propane fridge. I had to run my gas engine generator to pump water and charge the battery that ran my radio-telephone. A friend invited me to a barter fair later that year, and there was this guy selling solar equipment. I was fascinated. For the next year, I read every word I could find about solar, then I went back to the barter fair and bought my first solar equipment. I wired it up myself (it was a really simple DC system), and after that I always had lights, telephone, and boom-box, and only had to run the generator once every three weeks to pump water up to the tank.

Meanwhile, my husband Lance had the first solar home here in Oregon. He installed his solar electric system in 1981, and when I met him, we combined our love for solar and for living in the mountains. It's a match made in solar heaven!

2. You say that when you live off-grid, you're "the manager of your own power system." What do you mean by that?

There are people who will tell you that you can set everything up automated, so the system just makes all the power you need, whenever you need it, and you don't have to think about it. That's only true if you have an unlimited amount of money and don't care how much fossil fuel you burn in an engine generator. If you really want a renewably-powered off-grid system, you must personally monitor your system. You need to know how much power is coming in, and how much you are using. You need to have meters out there where you can see them as you go about your daily business. After that, it's much like keeping an eye on the gas gauge of your vehicle. It becomes automatic. You just check it as you go by, and maybe you decide you have extra power because it's sunny (or windy, if you are wind-powered), so you'll do the vacuuming or wash a load of laundry. If you don't have that connection between your life and your power usage, you just have a renewable-assisted generator system, because your generator will be running a lot.

By the way, Lance and I don't even have a generator. We decided a long time ago that we didn't like them (they're noisy, smelly, and unpleasant to deal with), and we just weren't going to do it. We managed our power use, which meant that during cloudy periods we curtailed recreational uses (videos, long hours on the computer, extra lights at night), and put the money we weren't spending on a generator into more solar. Now, we have enough solar to use all the power we need most of the year. There are still a couple of dark days in early winter most years when we curtail our power use to take care of our batteries!

3. Can you give us a brief rundown of your off-grid power system?

We have about 5 KW of solar modules, with a power panel containing two inverters (not stacked, as we don't have any 220 loads). We have two charge controllers, and they are late-model MPPT charge controllers. There's no need to go into brand names -- there are several brands of excellent off-grid equipment. I'd just highly recommend that people spend the money on good-quality equipment, because it will last longer and you will actually get more daily power out of your solar investment.

Our battery bank is twelve 2-volt AGM (absorbed glass mat) cells in a single string, 640 Amp-hours at 24 volts. It's not as large as commonly recommended, because we feel that the lower resistance from having AGMs and a smaller string, allows the batteries to accept a charge easily even in low-input situations when most people would be running their generators. Battery charging even at the level of a few amps, plus the ability to be modest with energy needs, equals no generator, equals freedom for us!

4. What other renewable energy systems and equipment do you have in your home?

I am still not sure, is efficiency a renewable resource? It does not actually provide power, but it sure equals more power available to use! Every appliance in our "base load" (those things we can't turn off, like fridge and freezer), has been chosen for efficiency. We have a ten cubic foot SunFrost refrigerator in the house, and an eight cubic foot SunDanzer freezer in the shed (where it is cooler). I am naming names here, because no other makers can compare to these two for efficiency. I use a laptop computer, and I have all my peripherals on a plug strip so I can turn them off when I don't need them. We use efficient bulbs in all the lights that get left on for more than a few minutes. Our house is "sun-tempered", which means we don't have enough thermal mass to be true passive solar, but we have the south-facing windows and other solar elements, which help warm the house in winter. Our windows are laid out for daylighting, which means we don't have to turn the lights on in the daytime. We use passive cooling and night ventilation in summer. We do a lot of solar cooking - see my page at www.highdesertnet.com/morninghill/solarcook.htm. And, our eco-forestry produces enough waste wood to provide all the wood fuel we need, and much of our dimensional lumber. Many wooded areas have excess fuel. Here in the west, that excess is going to burn some day - we get to choose how. I'd rather burn it in my woodstove as fuel, than have it fuel a forest fire.

5. You've devoted your life to renewable energy. Why do you think it's so important, and what are you doing to help promote it?

I read just the other day that worldwide oil production has been flat for a couple of years now. They have not been able to bring new production online as fast as the old oilfields are playing out. Our society and our lives are currently built on fossil fuels, which aren't gone yet, but they will be in steep decline soon. That is why the price is so high and unstable. I think renewable energy is absolutely essential to maintaining any kind of quality of life as we go into the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. I also think the days of unlimited energy, whatever the source, are over. The infrastructure just cannot be built to supply us with all the energy we want, whenever we want it, from a new source. So the corollary is, we have to use a lot less energy, as well as getting it from renewable sources.

I started figuring this out a long time ago, one piece at a time. I came to it pretty slowly. I came to RE just because I wanted to live in the woods. But the more I learned, the more I felt I couldn't merely be a consumer (of knowledge or energy), I had to help pass it on. In 1998, I started the nonprofit organization that sponsors SolWest Fair in John Day, Oregon. We have exhibitors and experts come to SolWest every July, from all over the West and beyond. It's a magical experience, a down-home country fair for renewable and sustainable enthusiasts. People camp out on the fairgrounds, volunteer their time, share their knowledge. There is more support for do-it-yourselfers here than at any other show. I feel privileged to be the facilitator of this event. I just organize it, and turn it loose. All the wonderful people who come to SolWest are what makes it happen.

By the way, I want to thank you at EarthToys for being a media sponsor of SolWest. We're a small, rural nonprofit, and our $1500 advertising budget wouldn't stretch outside our local area if it were not for the kindness of media sponsors like EarthToys and a few regional magazines. We really appreciate the work you are doing!

6. We can't all live off-grid. How can an ordinary person reduce their energy footprint?

Well, there's the usual advice about energy-saving light bulbs. That's a good place to start, but it's not enough. Try using one of the online energy audit tools (like this one from Lawrence Berkeley Labs) to walk-through your whole house. You'll find many ways to cut your energy use and approach the "efficient" level for your community. You'll need to look at appliances, house structure, heating/cooling systems (including insulation, ducts and pipes), electronics, and, of course, lighting. You'll receive an "upgrade report" at the end of your online session. I can't say this enough: not only is saving energy more cost-effective than making more energy, you will be more comfortable in your home! Energy efficiency is a no-brainer!

Once you've tackled the demand-side, then you can begin to look at the supply-side. Even city people can put up solar water heaters or solar electric power systems. Many utilities have cash incentives to help you do this, as well as quite a few states, and (through 2008) a federal tax incentive. Check out the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see what's available in your area.

Even if you live in an apartment, or a home where you aren't ready to invest in RE infrastructure, you can still support renewable energy, and use renewable power yourself, by participating in your utility's Green Power program. You should also try one of the online energy audits, such as this one at Home Energy Magazine. They are easy to do, and you can find ways to save money with little to no cash investment.
Everyone can also look for the "hidden" ways to reduce their energy footprint. Here are the two most obvious: food and transportation. If you eat locally, organically, and seasonally, you can reduce the amount of energy needed to grow, harvest, transport and store your food. If you reduce your overall travel, avoid air travel, bicycle or walk when possible, and use public transit whenever available, you reduce your energy needs for transportation. Take a close look at your consumption patterns, and you'll see more possibilities (recycle!).

7. Do you think it's feasible to be off the grid while living on a small city lot?

I think it's feasible to be off the grid anywhere you have access to sun, wind, or water for power. However, the city planning department may have other ideas. I know a couple in southwest Oregon whose urban homestead was off-grid on a city lot for many years, but they had a community that was supportive of renewables. I think that they have tied into the grid now to take advantage of their city's fantastic incentives for solar power. Micro-grids (where several systems are tied together, but the community is not tied to the grid) or grid-intertied systems really make more sense if you live close to existing lines.

8. Some of us are eager to make the move to a more sustainable life, but our spouses aren't ready. How do you and your husband discuss those "big issues."

It's been a seventeen-year-long conversation between me and Lance! We share our observations, we’re agreed about the direction we want to go, and we respect each other’s reasons. First, if we don’t try to live in a sustainable manner, we won’t all be able to keep enjoying life on the only planet we’ve got. Second, it’s about how we feel about ourselves: I have to care about leaving a nice world for the following generations, or I can’t look myself in the mirror each day and be happy with the person that I see. We feel you have to be clear on why you want to make changes in your life, before you can decide what it is you want to do.

The list of what we plan to do comes out of our ongoing conversation! I hope each of you and your spouse are in agreement, that it’s important to try and live more responsibly. That’s significant, and it’s a great starting point for conversations. Now the only question is, how do you choose to go about making those changes? Each person will order their list differently, and, assuming your spouse agrees with you about the big picture, maybe it’s just a question of what measures to start with. How about starting with some smaller things? Try going on a solar tour (www.nationalsolartour.org) for ideas. If you have kids, get them involved in the decision-making process. When the spouse and family see how pleasant this money-and-resource-saving can be, they will eventually want to take the bigger steps.

9. What do you think are the most important new technologies in the renewable energy industry?

I think that the single most important technology (speaking just for off-gridders like myself) is MPPT charge controlling. This allows the charge controller to process more of the incoming power for battery charging. It will put more power into your batteries than spending a similar dollar amount on more solar modules.
Another important new technology is energy monitoring. When Lance first got started in solar way back in 1981, his system monitor was his volt/ohm/tach/dwell meter (an automotive tool), because system monitors did not exist. Now our charge controllers log solar processing data, we have a system amp-hour meter that tells us how much power we have used, how much is remaining in our battery bank, and how much is coming in. This is information that we consider essential to the successful operation of a renewable energy system. For all consumers, whether on-grid or off-grid, we recommend single appliance meters such as the Kill-a-Watt energy monitor. This monitor allows you to measure the energy consumption of any plug-in appliance, and make your own determination about its use or replacement. We sometimes take ours into stores to help with purchasing decisions!

10. How soon do you think we will see average consumers begin to embrace renewable energy technologies and be willing to spend hard earned cash to incorporate them into their lives?

A friend of mine once said "When a person has been part of a process over a period of time, they begin to see it as being normal." Well, we're so used to just earning the money to buy energy-consuming products, and then earning the money to buy the energy to run them, that we see it as a normal way of doing things. Like the frog in the pot of water, we don't notice that the heat has been turned up and we are getting hotter and hotter (the price is going higher and higher). But we are a lot smarter than frogs, and some of us are jumping every day! As for the ones that hold back, well... I don't know what it's going to take for a critical number of us to make the leap to RE, but whatever it takes, that is what we are going to get. So the sooner we get on the bandwagon, the better life will be for all of us.

Jennifer Barker

Jennifer Barker is the executive director of EORenew, and organizer of SolWest Renewable Energy Fair. She is also the author of The Morning Hill Solar Cookery Book. She lives on an off-grid solar homestead in the Aldrich Mountains of eastern Oregon with her husband, Lance, and 3,000 Ponderosa Pine trees.

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