In the early 1980s I was a nature center director in Pueblo, Colorado. The energy crisis nationally energized us to be early adopters and models of conservation measures. We put a solar hot water heater on the center, added clivus multrum composting toilets and built a solar greenhouse both as demonstrations and to show our commitment to our own core values. The technologies were somewhat clumsy and challenging to use back then, but we learned much from doing it and conducted workshops as part of our programming to teach others about emerging technologies that protect the environment.
Decades passed and I moved on to be an association director. As private citizens, Lisa and I paid our energy bills and enjoyed the benefits of on-grid electricity at reasonable rates. In 2008 we used the exceptional U.S. and Colorado tax credits and Xcel Energy stimulus funds to add 48 on-grid solar panels to our home in Fort Collins. We had no electrical bill after that, except for a $7 clerical charge monthly. The system repaid us for hard costs in five years with the savings on electrical bills.
We just moved to the Big Island of Hawaii where we currently rent a home that is off-grid solar. Electrical power poles do not make it to this secluded location. It is actually a wonderful reminder every minute of the day that energy is not as free and easy as it seems in much of the United States. The normal cost for electricity of 42 cents a kilowatt-hour on the Big Island (3 times the mainland rate) encourages important choices in how you build and consume. We have decided to build our new bamboo house with off-grid photovoltaic cells, solar hot water and catchment water for irrigation.
In the meantime we have four to five months in the rental house to learn how to manage our daily lifestyle with less energy demand. Our current daily use of electricity is:
Light (1 – 60 watt) – 2.5 hrs.
Refrigerator – 24/7
Microwave – 5 minutes
Blender – 30 seconds
TV/Dish controller – 2.5 hours
Computer/phone recharge – 4 hours
Printer – 5 minutes
Toaster oven – 45 seconds
We have no heating or air conditioning with lows of 62 degrees and highs of 84 degrees Fahrenheit. We have no dishwasher, clothes washer, or dryer, a choice you make when going off-grid to decrease electrical demand. It’s a climate where clothes dry quickly outside and we just do not wear as many clothes with shorts and a T-shirt as the preferred daily apparel. (Lisa notes that she does wash clothes, but by hand, as needed, in the bathtub. It takes roughly one hour per week.) We cook with propane and have on-demand propane-fueled hot water.
Hawaii offers opportunities to lower our energy demand and live with no connection to the grid for a reasonable investment in photovoltaic solar power and hot water. The tax credits make it all more affordable and new technologies keep lowering the cost. Solar panels that cost $350/watt produced two decades ago are selling for $1/watt now so the opportunities to use solar on or off-grid have never been greater.
Nature centers, aquariums, zoos, museums, and parks, which use solar and other appropriate technologies make a valuable contribution in stimulating people to think about new options. When you employ these technologies, be sure you create the exhibits and other media to share your reasoning and the costs involved. Adding programs that help people learn how to do it can be very popular.
Climate makes going off-grid challenging in most places but year-round warm climates offer a great opportunity for people to return to a simpler way of life by making a few different lifestyle choices that are healthier for humans and for the planet. For more information, check out Home Power magazine to get more acquainted with the burgeoning technologies.
– Tim Merriman