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This post is a follow-up to four others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1, Part 2Part 3, and Part 4 - about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont where I developed a similar tour. Learn more in The Homeowner's Energy Handbook!

Washington Electric Cooperative

To ease the pain of 29 below 0 (Celsius), I turned the car’s internal and seat heaters all the way up to their respective Caribbean climate setting and headed north with Mario still reeling from the extreme cold. Almost immediately he called a friend in Florida to claim bragging rights to the experience.


First stop was Washington Electric Coop, a member-owned electric company and the country’s most rural electric utility in the sense that it has very few customers for every mile of electrical transmission line. WEC has a large renewable energy portfolio and our goal was to visit their landfill gas recovery power plant in Coventry.


This system consists of an active landfill with buried pipes to collect the methane gas produced by decaying organic material. The gas is piped to the power house where it is first scrubbed of impurities and then delivered to five diesel engines, each of which is connected to a 1.6 megawatt generator. Each year, this power plant delivers about two-thirds of the coop’s electrical needs from garbage, while preventing the powerful greenhouse gas methane, from entering the environment.


Along the way, we stopped to take photos of landscape and local scenes. Mario looked out the car window and asked if that wide open expanse of snow was a lake or a field. We pulled into the parking area where I pointed to the sign that called out the lake’s name, jumped out of the car and ran onto the frozen surface with Mario yelling “NO!” I cleared away the snow so he could see the frozen water below, jumped up and down a few times, and he finally came out to join me. “This is like a different world!” he exclaimed. “I’m in a cosmonaut suit on another planet!” After several photos and experiments with walking on water that was so thick you could drive a car on it, we were on our way again.



Lunch today was at the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center in Newport, where local food and beer are available for sampling and purchase. Our meal was expertly prepared by the Brown Dog Bistro. At this point, I felt comfortable enough to ask Mario a personal question about the Cuban experience. I knew what I wanted to ask, but didn’t know quite how to phrase it. And I didn’t think it would make us late for our next stop. In retrospect, we probably needed a few more drinks before I launched into this.

“What is it like to be a Cuban” I began tentatively, searching for the right words “in a world where you are the international underdog?” After over 50 years of the U.S. led embargo that has kept their economy in near ruin, Cubans have gained a level of global empathy for their plight. Their shared struggles have only served to make them a stronger island community, and I wanted to know how that experience has shaped him as he travels into the world with almost no budget. I imagined his story to be something similar to those many American (OK, North American) college students who once traveled the world on a shoe string, and to my own experience of getting on my bicycle as a young man with only a sleeping bag, tent, bags of gorp, and a probable destination in mind. These times of throwing yourself into the world and reveling in its unpredictable unfolding are often described as magical. People of the world welcome the open-hearted traveler.

Language and cultural barriers quickly became apparent. “What do you mean? What are you trying to say?” he asked. “Just tell me what you are trying to say and I will tell you.” I struggled for more words.

“When I go out into the world as an American” I said “I go with a plan, a credit card, and an attitude. I want to go someplace to have an experience, and I pay as I go. It’s expensive to be an American!”

“Listen, do you want me to pay for my lunch? Is that what you’re asking? I have a little bit of money, but you know I only make $40 a month! You spend that on one meal here.”

“That’s not what I mean!”  I tried to downplay my embarrassment at this misunderstanding.

“Before I came here, you asked me if I had a stipend, and I said no. I knew then that you did not understand about Cuba. I would like to travel and choose the experiences to have on my own terms, but I can’t. I’m here as a guest of Community Solutions, who have provided me with transportation and I hope to earn a little cash for my professional speaking engagements. I am only here in Vermont because of you, I am relying solely upon you while I’m here because we made a professional connection several years ago.” Now I was really feeling bad, I had embarrassed him.

I tried again, taking a deep breath. “I think you’ve hit on it, Mario. You rely on your connections, I rely on my credit card. There is a cultural difference there, a different way of being in the world. How does it feel to go out into the world relying only on the trust of friends and colleagues? How can you be sure things will keep opening up for you?” This time he got my meaning and I suddenly, sharply, realized that I was a long way from that kid on the bicycle of my past.

“Look around you. The windows are closed. Outside, people have their heads down with their chins in their collars to stay warm. In Cuba, our windows are open. We are in the community all day and all night. We are all neighbors. We hitchhike everywhere, and everybody stops for us. I don’t call my friends before I visit, and when I don’t drop in on them for a while, I am in trouble with them! We trust each other, that is all we have. That is how I live my life. I have to trust people.”

“It’s like a different planet.” I said. “You go through the world with connections, trust, and graciousness.”

A different planet.”


“I’ll call your perspective the ‘open window theory.’”  I knew this intellectually, that Cuba has a social economy not a monetary economy, but this interaction drove it home for me in a way that I could feel, and that makes me think I finally ‘get’ Cuba. North Americans use money to insulate themselves against a social economy. Riches manifest in many forms and translate into how we live in the world.

“Open window theory!” We shared a laugh, finished up and sped off to our next stop, one I was particularly looking forward to.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


This post is a follow-up to three others I have done on Cuba and Vermont, Perspectives on Energy and Culture: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 - about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont where I developed a similar tour.


After lunch with colleagues, we spoke with the Burlington Electric Department to explore how they are able to claim 100 percent renewable energy generation through wind, solar, and biomass energy production and purchase contracts. An increasing renewable energy portfolio is a goal of many states and utilities in response to customer demand. A renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) means that the utility is producing and/or buying a certain percentage of energy from renewable sources (imposed or voluntary)to meet their customer’s electrical demand. Investing in renewables is beneficial in many ways across the economy, but there is a fair amount of free-market smoke and mirrors behind the curtains of this concept because the regional electric grid hosts many types of generators fueled by gas, oil, nuclear, and renewable energies. How much of what source is in the mix at any given time involves complex minute-by-minute accounting that makes it impossible to know where the electrons powering your home really come from.

Electricity is bought and sold each day, each hour, based on availability and market cost. As demand increases (during peak use hours or weather extremes), the cost to purchase the commodity, in this case electricity, also increases. Add to this accounting the notion of Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs (a unit of one megawatt hour of renewably-generated electricity) and things get confusing fast. If a utility owns a renewable energy generator such as a solar, wind, or biomass power plant, the power can be used by the utility that owns that resource, or it can be sold as a REC to other utilities trying to meet their own RPS requirements. Whether to sell, keep, or buy RECs all depends on energy demand and market price. In some cases, a large electrical generator (such as a nuclear power plant) may actually pay into the power market so that they avoid a costly facility shut down and restart if they are underbid by another supplier. In other words, they are paying – not earning – to stay in the power market. You, the end user of this commodity, are insulated from all this fluctuation and your local utility needs a skilled negotiation and accounting team to survive the ups and downs. This is a difficult enough concept for a free-market economist to come to grips with; imagine the perspective of a native from a small island nation where everything needs to be accountable, cost-effective, and transparent in order to exist at all. “Show me the renewable electrons! I want to know what is powering my home!” says the islander. “Impossible!” says the free market power manager. “Ridiculous!” is the reply with the laughter of absurd disbelief.


While I don’t live on an island, I do live off the power grid with solar, wind, wood, biodiesel, and sometimes even homemade biogas. In my attempt to move further away from fossil fuels, I’ve developed a direct, hands-on relationship with the energy harnessed from nature and use to meet my family’s needs. In that sense, the notion of having finite resources is a daily consideration and expectations need to be managed around resource availability.  


Burlington Electric’s manager of power supply took us to Winooski One, a 7.4 megawatt hydro generator. The river was frozen on the surface but under the ice, liquid water flowed through the turbines. Mario braved the cold and frozen fingers to take photos and video of this site, amazed at the power in the apparently frozen river. Hydro resources in Cuba are few and far between as there isn’t the combination of water quantity and elevation required to produce a substantial amount of power.

Then on to the nearby McNeill Power Plant where 1,700 tons of woodchips are burned each day to generate 50 megawatts of electricity. As with Winooski One, some of the power produced is sold as RECs, and some to the local grid. Of course, all the electrons it produces are mixed in with all the other electrons produced elsewhere. The plant operator showed us a live feed of the regional market price to purchase a megawatt hour (one million watt-hours or one thousand kilowatt-hours). As temperatures were predicted to dip to record lows on this night, the wholesale cost of electricity was on the rise as power planners scrambled to ensure that the extra demand would be met.


The next morning it was -21 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 degrees Celsius), a full 30 degrees Celsius colder than Mario had ever experienced, and to which he jokingly believed he could claim a national record for surviving. We entertained him with cold weather tricks like blowing soap bubbles that quickly freeze and can be held in the hand, then tossing a pot full of boiling hot water up into the cold air to watch it evaporate instantly into a cloud. He provided a bit of unintentional entertainment to his hosts as well. Watching a grown man put on winter gear for the first time balances a line between excruciating and comical. If you’ve ever watched a young child bundle up for winter and try to make the school bus on time, you’ll have a feeling for this. His borrowed boots, jacket, hat, and gloves fit well but took lots of time and energy to install on his body. Then there was the checklist of all the things required for the day – phone, notepad, pen, camera; each assigned to a pocket. “This is ridiculous!” he laughed. Winter’s second skin is second nature to a New Englander, but I was beginning to agree with him on this point.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


When last we left you, I was talking about my friend from Sri Lanka, and the prospect of helping the poor in that country— and worldwide— through low-cost biogas. (And my apologies for the radio silence: I’ve been busy…)

Ideals are important, to be sure. And some say that we are either idealistic or realistic, as if becoming aware of injustice somehow necessarily prevents us from addressing it. But at least in my experience, that’s just not the way the world works. Just look around: there are a fair number of people who are both idealistic and realistic: but we could always use many more.

No doubt talk is cheap, and many things are difficult. That means that whether our goals are noble or selfish, failure to achieve those goals is not uncommon. But hey: Surely it’s better to fail when trying to help people escape poverty than it is to fail to add another zero to our personal wealth, no? (The zero is supposed to go on the right-hand end of the number, for any who were unsure…)

My father taught me a lot about how to find ways to have high ideals and achieve goals. (He invented the cochlear implant, if anyone can be said to have done so. Dr. William House: you could look it up.) And after all, I reasoned (underneath my gray hair), I’ve done my service to capitalism, established a strong marriage, raised a family and launched them into their amazing success stories (and they are amazing; just ask me)… So what was preventing me from trying for this brass ring— helping the poor worldwide— except a desire to sleep late on Sunday?

Well naturally then when my friend from Sri Lanka woke me up to the potentials of biogas for global benefit, I began to pursue this dream of helping many, many others, with limited resources and all by myself. How does one do that in a practical, step-by-step, realistic manner?

Well, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that thus far, it’s fair to say that what I’ve tried has met with limited apparent success. I won’t bore you with all the messy details, but let me give you a sketch.

I first tried a very conventional approach, developing a darn spiffy, multi-page, gee-whiz spreadsheet, a timeline and other accoutrements, and using these to pursue grants. But after shopping it around and doing the standard hey-there-fund-this-grant two-step, I was left with the feeling that I was standing on a field— along with 10,000 other folks— where all of us were waving our particular fistful of paper about our particular Good Idea, trying to gain some funding, then maybe some attention. Up close maybe you could hear one of us. From a few yards further away, where I imagined the closest grantors were standing, it would have been just sort of a lot of noise.

The experiences left me with the thought that, well, this would be a lot easier if I was able to get the attention first; the funding will follow. So I began to plan and build a solar-heated greenhouse with some fairly revolutionary features, intended to house a 10-cubic-meter digester fed entirely with food waste from a local restaurant. I got some modest funding from a few good friends, developed the design, spent months going up and down a ladder, and gradually the thing began to take shape. Here was to be something that people could point cameras at, to come and watch biogas in action.

Then, months into the build, a huge winter storm came through and brought it all down. Wham. Flat. Kindling. I had neither the heart nor the funds to start such a large project again…

Meanwhile, I had developed a small, very cheap digester suited to the tropics and intended to be manufactured in quantity. Materials cost? $10.

Now, I happen to know something about design and manufacturing because of my past work experience, and I knew that for something like a digester-for-the-poor— which is supposed to work well where every floor is a dirt floor— one crucial design process is to have people bang on the thing and try to break it. It should be reasonably sturdy, right?

So to provide funding for efforts to improve the design, to get the designs out and about and under stress, and to begin the process of gaining attention, I decided to start teaching workshops about biogas, capped with a half-day segment where we would all manufacture these low-cost digesters from kits and parts.

That went very well. I love to gab and I had something useful to say. My dear friends Tim and Suzanne of Friendly Aquaponics invited me to come to Hawaii and teach, I got invited to Australia, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology organized a workshop in Iowa, just to mention a few. From California to upstate New York, groups of charged-up folks had a good time and learned all about biogas. And they loved it, at least according to the evaluation forms I gathered from each class.

The favorite part of these workshops for most of the participants, it seemed, was building those low-cost tropical digesters. But at the same time, that was also the key problem, that little word there: “tropical”. The information was good, the folks were enthusiastic, the workshop was humming and the digesters were… tropical. In Iowa there was snow on the ground. In New York, it was early spring. Too cold. Even in Hawaii, perhaps surprisingly: it was too cold almost everywhere.

Then this last spring I was invited to do a workshop in Brooklyn, and as I was doing the work to prepare for it, I gradually came to realize two things. The first was that these workshops, as popular and fun as they were, were not going to get me close enough to the brass ring. It was a great job description to add to a number of others, like “scriptwriter” that I had accumulated— “Biogas workshop leader”— but all by themselves, these get-togethers probably weren’t going to get me to Sri Lanka, organizing the manufacture and distribution of many thousands of digesters.

It hit me: I had given a lot of thought to low-cost, practical, tropical digesters, but I hadn’t thought at all about digesters that would work in Burbank, upstate New York, or Iowa in the winter during a hard freeze: That is, almost anywhere on this continental land mass here that I’m sitting on just now.

The good news, as I came gradually to realize, was that all the design ideas and testing, all the invention of manufacturing equipment that I had undertaken in my quest for tropical, could help me— it could help you, come to think of it— to produce that utterly rare creature: A low-cost, well-designed, small biogas digester that will work profitably here, where tropical is a travel brochure, not a weather pattern.

The key ideas, as it turned out, were pretty simple. What I knew was that if I took two sheets of plastic and carefully pressed them— compressed them— together along a line, say with a couple of 2-by-4s and a bit of weather-stripping, nothing would leak through that line: not liquid, and not gas (at least not at low pressures). So in fact, with a bit of ingenuity and modest folding, I could create a water- and gas-tight container out of plastic sheets pressed into place by rigid pink polystyrene foam insulating boards, held in place by plywood. The polysty would provide good insulation. I knew from my experiments how to create a very cheap, very strong bung— a pipe-hole through the wall— and that’s all anyone really needs: A tight box with some pipes, minimum three: a slurry inlet, an effluent outlet, and a gas collection pipe.

And that’s it right there, really. That’s an entirely new design for a biogas digester which is cheap and well-insulated: the grail. And for the next many posts in this blog, that’s what I’m going to tell you, in some detail, how to make.

It will take more than a few posts and therefore some time, because there’s only so much you can say in a 1,000 words or so, even with pictures to multiply the syllable count. If you want to learn much more, a lot more quickly, then you are welcome to attend the next Beginner’s Biogas Workshop, which will be held in Washington DC in mid-April. (Read the details.) There and then, we will be revealing all. (Well, almost all. But in any case, enough.)

And if you can’t make it there, then no worries. There will be more workshops (sign up to be notified on the TCBH site), and whether or not it's practical for you to attend a workshop, keep reading the blog and I’ll tell you everything I can.

Here’s my hope, finally. This isn’t just about providing practical, cheap, small biogas to a small set of dedicated crazies in the US. I firmly believe that this effort can help catalyze greater use of wasted food in this lovely, forgetful-of-its-high-ideals nation, and that in turn, it is my fond hope, can have a measurable impact on the release of climate changing ‘wild’ methane from out of landfills. (Food wasted around the world produces as much greenhouse gas as all the annual emissions of the entire country of India, the third largest GHG emittter! And if we can reduce methane emissions, according to the New Scientist magazine, we can delay the impacts of climate change by 15 years... Hey: that's worth doing, right?)

Then finally, if I can create enough excitement and pay down my mortgage from these efforts, I’ll bet I can take it all the way to Sri Lanka. What do you think? What are my chances?

Keep reading, and we’ll both find out.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Read Part 1 in this series here.
Read Part 2 in this series here.

Visit to the U.S.

In 2014, Mario was invited to visit to the U.S. to share his experience and learn from ours as a guest of the non-profit organization Community Solutions. I had given Mario copies of my books The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook, and The Home Energy Diet, and we kept in touch on a professional level over the years. He reached out in advance of his trip and now it was my turn to play the host, at least for the Vermont portion of his travels. When you live in a place, you never seem to do the things the tourists do unless you have company, and this would be a great excuse to visit some of the attractions I had always wanted to visit in Vermont. Thus was borne the First International Vermont Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Exploration Tour. I reached out to colleagues for thoughts and recommendations, and pared the long list down to a more manageable three-day tour. Vermont is a leader in many ways throughout the energy sphere in the U.S. and the accompanying entrepreneurial spirit we encountered was truly inspiring.

Moving Heat with a Heat Pump

Our first visit was a home inspection where an air-source heat pump was recently installed. The concept of intentional year-round space conditioning is foreign enough to a native of the Caribbean region, but to consider that there is enough heat to squeeze out of the air with the temperature hovering around 0°F, and then deliver it to the indoors at a temperature of around 100 degrees F seemed implausible! The proof was in the infrared thermal imaging camera Mario held for the first time. A $3,000 electronic test instrument is not an option in the Cuban economy.

On our walk across the parking lot to lunch at Burlington’s , he insisted that I take an infrared photo of his freezing cold cheek.

We were joined at lunch by several friends and colleagues, all welcoming him to America, asking questions and trading stories. Mario reminded us to be careful about calling ourselves Americans. “I am also American, as is everyone living throughout North, South, Central, and Latin America.” The obvious is not always so without the proper perspective.

Next Week: Burlington Electric Department - 100 percent renewable grid electricity for an entire city.

Click here to find all of Paul's blog posts.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Read Part 1 in this series here.

While in Cuba, we visited various cultural and energy related sites, and were introduced to the many fine vices offered for pleasure. These included Havana Club dark aged rum, and fine tobacco rolled into cigars and properly lit with a wooden stick, not a match. A burning match will introduce an unacceptable sulfur taste to the smoker.


Poverty is rampant, opportunities limited, and the results of dire circumstance are partly manifested in acts of desperation like scams and prostitution. There is much potential for social and economic growth in a developed Cuba, free of the U.S. trade embargo. Despite hardships, Cubans retain a strong community spirit and a powerful desire to achieve. To put a mildly positive spin on the result of the embargo, one could say that ‘poverty preserves’. Cuba was once the playground of the U.S. and one development plan from the late 1950s would have lined the coast with hotels and casinos. The existing seafront promenade in Havana along el Malecon is a regular gathering place for many people. On the other hand, poverty destroys. Havana loses several buildings every day due to neglect. Eighty percent of Havana was built during the first half of the 20th century, and much of it went up in a hurry. As these older buildings crumble, they are replaced by the government with cinder block row housing. All housing in Cuba is government housing. Historic Old Havana’s buildings date some 500 years back to Spanish occupation and are being actively restored, or at least spared from ruin. With improving relations between Cuba and the U.S., there is an opportunity for thoughtful, planned growth. Mario remains determined that Cuba will not lose its identity; that the culture will thrive, and change will be slow, considered, and deliberate as outside investment opportunities increase.

What Cubans Want

Among all the people we spoke with, nobody really understood what the embargo is all about. Lasting over 50 years, the U.S. led embargo is the longest act of aggression in modern history. A substantial part of the problem seems to be disgruntled and disenfranchised Cubans in Florida, and perhaps they are justified in holding a grudge against the Castro regime. Trying to explain to Cubans about the Electoral College and the powerful place Florida holds in the policy making of the entire country is met with confusion. How could this be so in America? Everywhere we went, people implored us, “isn’t there something you can do?” Cuban people consistently cite only five desires:

1. Let Cuba live.

2. End the blockade.

3. Stop spending counter revolutionary money in Cuba.

4. Free the Cuban 5 (done in late 2014).

5. Accept our differences, be engaged as friends.

I will add to this list the need for high speed internet access! The country currently lives with the equivalent of dial-up speeds and only a small part of the population has any access at all. Getting online was so painful that after two days of attempting to communicate with family and friends, I gave up. Ten days in the dark. Try it sometime; it’s an oddly debilitating freedom.

Site Visits

There were a number of meetings with businesses and the electric utility, a visit to the country's sole photovoltaic (solar electric or PV) panel manufacturing facility, and a tour of a community hydroelectric generating station, among many others.


This hydro power plant uses a 30 kilowatt Russian generator to power a village of 57 homes. For perspective, 30 kilowatts would be enough to power three to five average homes in the U.S. The school in this village had PV panels and garners power priority so that when power is low, the community can at least meet some basic needs with the school serving as community center. This autonomous approach to power generator is uncommon in Cuba as there are few hydroeletric projects, and 95 percent of the population is connected to the national power grid. Ninety five percent of electric power produced is from oil-fired generators, with most of the remainder produced from sugar cane waste, or bagasse.

It's Complicated

Our guides and hosts often answered our questions with what became almost a joke, if it had not been true. "It's Complicated." Ask a question and there often is no clear answer. Everything in Cuba is complicated. The country is a political football and daily life changes in reaction to political events. There are two forms of currency, and daily encumbrances with the embargo hinder infrastructure repairs due to lack of parts and supplies. Jesus, our tour guide, told us “you can’t understand what it’s like to live here after only a week. Cubans are re-inventing things every day and we don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. It’s like untangling a bowl of spaghetti, you can pull out one noodle but you still have a bowl of spaghetti.”


Click here to read Part 3: Visit to the U.S.

Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook. You can read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts by clicking here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


“C’mon, Mario! Let’s get to the car!” I shouted through the collar of my coat as the winter winds picked up. The temperature was already in the single digits.

I turned around to see him just standing there, frozen still, looking down at the ground.  What is he doing?  I thought. My fingers were numb and I was feeling a bit impatient.

“Is this ice?!” He called out to me. I stopped and smiled, laughing at my impatience in the face of his childlike wonder.

“Yes, that’s ice!” He tested the frozen puddle with his foot, sliding it carefully over the unfamiliar glassy surface and handed me his camera so I could take a photo of him standing on solidified water. Then we both ran to the car to get out of the cold.

It was January 7, 2015. Mario had just arrived in Burlington, Vermont, from Cuba, and he had never experienced temperatures below freezing. I met him almost four years prior to this visit when I traveled to Cuba on a tour with other energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals. The tour was organized by Solar Energy International, a renewable energy school for which I taught a week long sustainability class, with travel logistics provided by Global Exchange. Mario is a specialist in Technology and Environmental Information at the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment in Havana. He was one of our professional connections and guide for the Havana portion of our delegation, where he helped us to understand how Cuba responded to the economic collapse of their best trade ally, the old Soviet Union. Their ruin quickly led to Cuba’s own economic collapse in 1989, a time they euphemistically refer to as The Special Period (it was essentially a depression). Things were hard enough already with the U.S. embargo in place since 1960, and now Cuba had lost over three-quarters of its oil imports. Over the next four years, energy use in the country dropped by half.

This is the first in a series of weekly postings about my visit to Cuba with a delegation of energy industry professionals, and a Cuban colleague’s visit to Vermont for a similar tour. Along the way we learned about efficiency and renewables, and some striking contrasts between ourselves and our countries were revealed.

Paul Scheckel is the author of The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook.

Next Up: Visit to Cuba

Click here to read Part 2 in this series.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


In my previous blog post I mentioned how Jonathan Taggart and I recently completed a book and a film on off grid living in Canada. For this post I want to talk about the film and what it's all about. I'll begin by showing the film's trailer, which can be seen below or at our website, Life Off Grid.

Life Off Grid trailer from Jonathan Taggart on Vimeo.

Condensing 65,000 miles of travel across the country, almost three years of research, and nearly 200 interviews into 1 hour and 25 minutes wasn't an easy feat. But the process of selection says a lot about the things that mattered to us as film-makers.

Matt Clarke (editor), Jon (director), and I (producer) decided to build the film's story around two central questions: why and how someone lives off the grid. The answers do not come from our voiceover words. Rather, it is directly through the voices of about two dozen individuals living across Canada (most of the Canadians, some of them American and British expats) that we manage to share a wide variety of experiences and perspectives on what life off the grid means.

Told as a road story moving from the West Coast to the East Coast — passing by the North Coast along the way — the film introduces at least one family per province and territory and gives viewers an intimate and candid peek into their homes, land, and life.

It's not the kind of documentary film one would expect. Most of the movies and shows on off-grid living that I have seen sensationalize off-gridders and their homes, or at least make highly selective production choices by focusing only on individuals and families living in the most dramatically unique conditions. In fact, for the last two years I have been getting periodical requests from Canadian, American, and British TV production companies asking me to put them in touch with the most outlandish "characters." Sorry, I regularly say, I only met "normal" people.

Interesting as that may be in the TV listings guide — after all it must be hard to compete with the Kardashians and Gold Rush — that kind of sensationalism was never of interest to me, Jon and Matt. Instead we wrote an earnest and sober story that portrays off-grid living in Canada for what we found it to be: diverse, complex, nuanced and, most of all, beyond the stereotypes.

The reality on the ground — one that probably would not make for a conventional "reality" show, but maybe for a truly realistic one — is that off-grid living isn't (just) for the bold, the wild and the adventurous. It is, in fact, for just about everyone. Depending on motivations, available capital, regional conditions, climate, and personal lifestyle preferences one can live off the grid in the most diverse ways.

For example, the documentary shows that certain individuals manage to recreate high levels of domestic comforts and convenience in their off-grid homes — levels of comforts similar to those experienced in urban and suburban grid-connected homes. Other individuals and families, instead, choose to do with less and in the way end up reinventing what a home means. In our mind there are no hierarchies among these individuals: no off-gridder lives a more inherently interesting or authentic life than others. All simply live their lives by choices of their own making.

And living life by choices of one's making, to us, is really the point of off-grid living.

The movie, by the way, is currently touring film festivals so it's not available for viewing anywhere other than in the film festival cities. To stay posted on where the movie is being played, and when it's (hopefully) coming to a big or small screen near you, you can keep up with our blog, Life Off Grid, or follow us on Facebook.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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