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There is perhaps no better inspiration for going solar than the independent homesteader. In this segment of "Ask the Solar Pros," we feature Part 1 of our interview with Michael Potts, whose book The New Independent Home draws from numerous interviews with independent home dwellers.
Homeowners who live off the grid don't always live in remote areas. Some are urban dwellers, and most, if not all, are community minded. Potts himself is passionate about sustainable living. Without sugar coating, Potts' gives straightforward and lively explanations that bring about an infectious inspiration for the practice. But his is more than just a tale to inspire. Potts' insights lead one to find practical applications for reducing carbon footprints, even though the path is far from effortless.
According to Potts, energy is our most important crop, and parents with young children are pioneers on the solar frontier. Today, both notions apply. Potts explains that
homeowners with photovoltaic installations look beyond short-term economics to energy behaviors that help create sustainable lifestyles across their children's generations.
Find out more as Potts discusses the challenges and rewards that independent homesteaders face, and how the factors have changed since his book's original publication date more than ten years ago.
Your book, The New Independent Home, explores the ideas and technologies of independent homesteaders. What are the common threads in terms of the biggest challenges and rewards faced by these homesteaders?
Remember, my book was written in 1993 and revised in 1998, and so a couple of decades have passed since my homesteaders headed out on the Energy Trail.
The first common thread is that these adventurous folks have self-selected, and are usually willing to work a little harder, spend a little more money up front, and get along with a little less in order to reduce the burden they place on the planet. Not surprisingly, most have young children ...and a common thread amongst these children is that "consumer energy" -- what one such solar child calls "voodoo electricity" -- seems pretty crazy. These parents and their children are pioneers on the solar frontier, and it's a matter of pride and dedication to be as energy self-sufficient as possible.
The second common thread is a willingness to "live by the sun" and accept some limitations and "dancing lessons" from solar income. Activities depend on weather; it's dark at night.
One work-at-homer pioneer described living in his solar house as "like living on a yacht underway on the ocean" because his day included the normal workaday tasks, punctuated with opening a window here, switching a power source, checking the batteries and then starting the laundry, shifting the solar oven to follow the sun so lunch would be hot.Homesteading has always been about innumerable details and daily diligence; for solar homesteaders, this includes a weather eye "always" for energy, our most important crop.
A third thread, especially amongst the earlier solar pioneers, was a fascination with untried and not-quite-ready technology. Early adopter homes often featured Rube Goldberg energy systems patched together from surplus parts, inventive prototypes of controls, repurposed technology, and improbable strategies. The hills of solar ghettos like Vermont's Mad River Valley, Colorado's Roaring Fork, and California's Emerald Triangle are still littered with solar thermal systems that didn't quite work and roof surfaces not quite oriented for the best solar harvest. By the end of the 21st Century's first decade, the mainstream has flowed into the homes of even the most hard-bitten pioneers, because the available technology has become so robust and easy to apply.
"The New Independent Home," was originally published in 1993. Since that time, what do you find are some of the biggest changes in off-grid living? What has remained unchanged?
The technology is better. In part because the pioneers were so stubborn, so unwilling to accept "No" for an answer, it is now possible, and has been for at least a decade, to build an affordable self-sufficient energy system and choose a houseful of energy efficient appliances, so that the residents don't really have to "trim their yacht" constantly, but can live just like folks on the grid.
One big and obvious change is that living a solar-energized life on the grid, like we do, makes good sense. Net metering laws in many states encourage folks like me to generate and share our surplus.
In the next decade or two we expect to see some communities, where many householders are adopting efficiency and mounting energy harvesting equipment, to be able to "island" and go it alone after a big storm or other loss of centrally generated power.
Two major influences have not changed. Latter day pioneers who are willing to spend a few thousand on photovoltaics for their south-facing roofs, and otherwise optimize their homes for living within their solar income, don't look to short-term economics to justify their investment. They understand that marketplace signals, like the cost of a kilowatt of electricity, is only a small part of the economic story. They place themselves somewhere along a conscious continuum of caring for the planet and modelling energy behaviors that can make their lifestyles more sustainable over, for example, the lifetimes of their children.
The second constant since I started working with self-generated energy is the relative negligence of the government. While this was a source of dismay in early years, this has proven to be a good thing. Where government has intervened with generous programs, bottom feeders have been quick to follow ... and so the solar hot water initiative of the 1970s resulted in unworkable technology poorly installed. Comparing solar development with, let's say, petroleum subsidies, we see that
solar energy has learned to stand on its own legs with little help from the government.
-- Stayed tuned for Part 2 of our interview. Potts will discuss energy efficiency and day-to-day living, along with advice for homeowners who've always wanted to be more self sufficient on the home front.
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