January 24, 2001
Home-Grown Energy's Time to Shine
By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN
UKIAH, Calif., Jan. 18
Down a 32-mile dirt road, where turkey vultures ride the thermals above
fir-fragrant hills, there is a corner of Northern California blissfully
immune from rolling blackouts, Stage 3 power alerts, melting ice cream and
frozen alarm clocks.
In this home of back-to-the-landers and hippies in hiding, a wee bit of
smugness has set in among those who make their own electricity and like it
that way people like Dale Glaser, 56, a retired teacher who, he said, came
here 30 years ago to "unplug from society." He lives in a seven-sided yurt
with an indoor hammock and is completely off the conventional power grid.
"I knew what is happening was coming," Mr. Glaser said of the state's bad
energy karma, as he
stood beside his sprawling high-tech solar array and Air 403 windmill.
"It's about taking responsibility. You become the power plant."
In recent days, millions of Californians have found themselves
systematically thrown off the grid.
Not Mr. Glaser. He and nearly 100 neighbors hidden in the hollows above the
Mendocino coast, 110 miles north of San Francisco, moved here in the 1970's
to embrace many alternatives, including alternative energy.
Here and in other active pockets, including Taos, N.M., the fierce but tiny
ranks of off-the-gridders
have largely comprised "the Birkenstock, granola-eating crowd," in the
words of Daniel Kammen, an associate professor of energy and society at the
University of California and director of the Renewable and Appropriate
Energy Laboratory at the university.
Now, that may change. It has become easier to live off the grid,
Mr. Kammen said, because the prices of alternative energy systems,
especially photovoltaic panels, have decreased and their efficiencies have
"Solar systems have typically cost between 15 and 18 cents for every
kilowatt generated," Mr. Kammen said. "Five years ago, when conventional
power cost 4 to 5 cents an hour, that sounded terrible. But with prices for
fossil fuel power as high as 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour and higher,
it's now suddenly wildly more competitive."
New incentives, like a state rebate only for those connected to the
grid help provide for the installation of photovoltaic panels, small wind
systems and fuel cells that operate on renewable fuels. About 30 states,
including California, also have laws to give consumers credit toward their
utility bills when they generate electricity back into the grid, known as
spinning the meter backwards.
In Berkeley, Gary Gerber, a contractor who installs solar and other
energy-efficient equipment, is getting a lot of desperate phone calls these
days. "As soon as the lights go off, the light bulb goes on," he said.
The grid has long been the bane of back-to-the-landers here, who in the
Hatfield-McCoy days of the early 1970's used to cut down the power wires
for fencing. ("Nice piece of wire," recalled Ross Burkhardt, an early
But historically, the grid is a relatively new phenomenon, said David
Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Until the 1930's and 1940's, when the public power movement brought
electricity to rural areas, "there wasn't a grid," Mr. Freeman said. Now,
it covers the vast majority of the country.
Mr. Freeman, who once ran the Tennessee Valley Authority, said that Silicon
Valley businesses revving up their own emergency generators were the latest
indication that self-sufficiency might no longer be confined to hippies.
"If the old order keeps sputtering, the new order self-generation will
come in," he said. "And it ought to." Ideally, he added, consumers will use
an array of alternative power sources, with the grid as a backup.
Here in Mendocino County, on rural routes christened Fred MacMurray Lane
and Toosteepta Drive, Mr. Glaser and his neighbors pioneered a scrappy,
self-sufficient life independent of the grid that seems suddenly prescient.
Mr. Glaser's shelter has evolved from the days when friends lived in tepees
and a sink was defined as a hole lined with rocks. In the beginning, his
power was cobbled together from golf-cart batteries, garden spray nozzles
and used solar panels propped with a stick.
Now, his washer-dryer, toaster, blender, vacuum cleaner - he does not skimp on
appliances - are run exclusively by the sun and wind and water from a
"It was about making a statement," he said. "To me the sun has always been
the energy of the future."
No one knows precisely how many people across the country are living
completely off the grid. "They're very hard to find," said Richard Perez,
editor of Home Power: The Hands-on Journal of Homemade Power, published
every other month and based in Ashland, Ore. "They don't pay electric bills."
Mr. Perez estimated that at least 8,000 families are living off the grid in
California, and more than 45,000 families nationally, with Humboldt and
Mendocino Counties in California as the hotbeds. The cost of an average
solar system for a family of four is $14,000 to $18,000, he said.
In this rugged landscape, where traveling to see a neighbor can feel a bit
like going on safari, electrical independence seems hard-won.
"Every day is a power issue for us," said Lynn Meadows, 49, a physician's
assistant, who lives with her husband, Bob Dress, a carpenter, in a
circular handbuilt house with a garden on the roof. "We're always aware of
power how much we're using, what the weather's doing, how the batteries
are holding up, whether the pond is overflowing.
"You can't turn the dryer on when the computer is on or it will erase
The state's energy travails seem distant in this land of hot tubs and wood
stoves, where driveways come with signs like "You're on Holy Ground: Mother
Earth." But it has put residents here, who are keenly aware of the earth's
cosmic energy, or qi, in a philosophical mood.
"We're a species of convenience," said Urmas Kaldveer, 59, a teacher and
environmental scientist. "But there's a price to pay."
Tracking the nuances of nature, Mr. Kaldveer noted, is demanding. He
recalled an incident in which a bear bit through his gravity-fed water
line, and only he could fix it.
"It's muddy, it's cold, and you're slipping on the sides of the creek," he
said. "Suddenly you see bear marks and say, 'What's my karma here?' Our
culture is not used to addressing situations like that."
Off-the-gridders here are nostalgic about the days when they used car
batteries to power up Crosby Stills Nash & Young on the stereo. And the
turmoil buffeting the state has brought a pervasive sense of luck.
"At the time it seemed the wisest thing to do, to live more softly and make
fewer demands," Mr. Kaldveer said. "Now, we have all the energy we need."
Sitting snugly in her yurt, Ms. Meadows added, "We're the only safe place."
About an hour west of here, in the woods near Mendocino, Michael Potts,
author of "The New Independent Home: People & Houses That Harvest the Sun,
Wind & Water" (Chelsea Green), was comfortably ensconced in his
off-the-grid home, feeling a Zen calm as power cutbacks swirled around him.
He has become suddenly popular among friends on the grid, he reported by
telephone. Even if the power is out on Sunday, Mr. Potts said, "I'm going
to be watching the Super Bowl."
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