A Comfortable Truth | Living Off the Grid

Living off the grid means living with the rewards and the contradictions that come with that decision.

By Ben Hewitt

Dec 15 2010

Photo Credit : Brinley, David

We first walked the land in late October 1997. It was raining. It was cold. We wore rubber boots and wool sweaters and still we felt the chill. Even the trees looked cold: The maples rooted in the rich Vermont soil had shed most of their leaves, and the birches looked like tall bones against the gray of the day.

The land sloped gently to the southwest, a rectangle of 40 acres. At its height lay eight acres of overgrown pasture; below that, another 30 or so of black cherry, fir, birch, maple, poplar, spruce, beech, and cedar; a few oak trees, stately and elegant. Across the valley, we could see the long, low barns of dairy farms and the patchwork of fields rimmed by stone walls and dotted with Jersey, Holstein, and Black Angus cattle.

We’d been looking for the right piece of land for more than a year, a search complicated by the paucity of our finances. We knew what we wanted: At least a dozen acres, with at least five of them cleared for gardens and animals (we didn’t yet know what sorts of animals). We’d been shown two-acre lots so choked by trees we had to walk sideways. And we’d seen pastoral, 30-acre hayfields, heartbreaking for both their beauty and our inability to afford them.

But now, for the first time, we were exploring a piece of land we could love and afford, and before I’d even turned to Penny and whispered “I love it,” I’d seen how wide her eyes had gotten, seen that she loved it too, and I knew we’d make an offer that night. Indeed, we did.

There was a catch, of course. There’s always a catch. And here it is: The driveway was, well, not exactly there. Not so daunting but for one simple fact: The driveway we’d have to create would need to cut across 1,300 feet of densely wooded right-of-way; a quarter-mile driveway. If you think about it, there are really only two types of people who have quarter-mile driveways: the wealthy, who can afford to build and maintain them, and the poor, who can afford only such hyper-rural property. We were not the wealthy.

Our quarter-mile driveway is critical to this story for this reason: Our separation from the road and the network of power lines that trace it demand a level of self-sustenance we might never have demanded of ourselves. If we’d built on the road, or even near the road, we would have connected our home to the utility grid and never looked back. As it was, after converting our life savings into 40 acres of northern Vermont field and forest, we simply couldn’t afford to bring power back to the house site, a $20,000 endeavor. So we borrowed two small solar panels and a couple of used batteries, and bought the inverter necessary to convert the solar electric DC current into common 110-volt AC household current. We installed this modest array on a sunny August afternoon; that night, for the first time since we’d moved into the drafty shell of our unfinished house, we didn’t need to light candles.

When you live off the grid, you become a worshipper of the sun on a level most people can’t appreciate. It’s not about the tan, or the simple pleasure of its warmth on your skin; it’s about the things it lets you do: run a vacuum cleaner, or a washing machine, or even, on those hot, humid August nights, a window fan. (There’s no air conditioning when you live off the grid; air conditioners drink electricity like there’s no tomorrow.) There’s an almost giddy pleasure to be had from watching photovoltaic panels soak up free electricity, and if you get close enough to charging batteries, you can hear the water inside them bubble. It sounds a little bit like laughter.

Over the years our system has slowly grown. We started with two 50-watt panels–enough, over the course of a cloudless summer’s day, to generate about half a kilowatt hour. To put that in context, it might be helpful to know that the average American family of four uses nearly 30 kilowatt hours per day. To put it into more context, a kilowatt hour in Vermont currently sells for about 14 pennies. In other words, our electricity supply, under the sort of ideal conditions that are all too rare in northern Vermont, amounted to one-sixtieth of the U.S. average–and was worth about seven cents.

We lived within the constraints of this system for nearly two years, before upgrading to a pair of 300-watt panels. Now we could make nearly three kilowatt hours per day. We celebrated by plugging in an extra table lamp and making shadow puppets on the wall until midnight. We now had three functioning electric lights. We felt drunk with power.

Things have improved considerably since. Our solar photovoltaic system now comprises 1,800 watts and is supplemented by a 900-watt wind turbine that rides atop a 65-foot mast at the height of our land. Along the south-facing gable end of our Cape-style farmhouse, we’ve mounted a pair of solar hot-water collectors. During the long, sunny days of summer, they produce more than 90 percent of our domestic hot water at such high temperatures we’ve had to install a mixing valve to actually cool the output. The water collectors dump hot water into a “preheat” tank, which then flows into our propane-fired water heater. With this design, we never lack for hot water; when the collectors aren’t producing enough, our propane tank picks up the slack. The technology–simple as it is–saves us about 300 gallons of propane each year.

We never really intended to be off-grid greenies; it just sort of happened. We ended up with solar power because we couldn’t afford to install power along our driveway; we heat our home with wood because we’re too cheap to buy heating oil, and because once you’ve known the pleasure of sitting beside a hot woodstove on a January night, no other heat will do. We have huge gardens because, let’s face it, it’s fun to dig in the dirt. And even more fun to pick a salad five minutes before dinner.

To be sure, there are innumerable contradictions running through our lives. We operate a small farm, and every farmer needs a pickup, so I drive a one-ton Chevy that gets maybe 10 mpg … downhill … with a tailwind. My work requires maybe a half-dozen plane trips per year, and I’ve never bought a carbon offset. Probably never will, either.

We’re not dogmatic. We try not to preach. We do what we do because it feels right and makes sense to us. Some of these decisions minimize our impact. Some don’t. And sometimes, to be honest, I’m a little sheepish about the wholesomeness of our place. Maybe it’s my pragmatic rural Vermont upbringing. Or maybe it’s because I can smell the sense of righteousness that’s attached to the green movement. Call it “Al Gore syndrome.”

But the fact remains that our climate is changing. The fact remains that within my life, the dozen sugar-maple trees we tap each spring with our two young boys might die, victims of a warming Northeast. And what will happen to the mountains I so dearly love to ski? Could they soon be snow-bare but for the occasional cold front sweeping down across interior Canada? They could. They very well could.

I’m glad that circumstances led us to this life, and over time, I’ve become grateful to have learned to live comfortably on 15 percent as much electricity as my average countryman. That doesn’t make me better than they; it doesn’t mean I care more, or more deeply. Because, let’s face it, to be alive in 2011 is to be unsustainable. That’s the comfortable truth we all live with, and I say “comfortable” because it’s the ease and convenience of modern life that make it unsustainable. Whether or not that’s a good deal depends on the scope of your view; in the short term, it’s a pretty sweet ride.

But there are times–and they seem to occur at the most unlikely moments, like when I’m scraping ice from the solar panels in zero-degree wind chill–when it occurs to me that ease and convenience are highly overrated. The environmentally conscious life–like New England’s craggy, unapologetic hills and capricious weather–demands something of a person. And I like it that way.

Read a profile of another energy-efficient Vermont home.