Renewable energy options are expanding rapidly for those who dream of life on an off-grid homestead. Solar panel costs have plummeted, home-scale wind power is readily available, and plug-in electric cars are becoming more affordable. In short, the brass ring of wiser living is within our grasp.
For almost 45 years, readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS have led the way in creating self-sufficient lifestyles more connected to the land — and often disconnected from the fossil fuel-dependent power grid. By raising solar panels on your roofs, tapping the power of the wind, building greenhouses, planting gardens, and just generally being frugal and inventive, you have shown the world that a more conscientious, sustainable way of life can be rewarding and fun.
Today, that lifestyle is more attainable than ever, as the number of renewable energy options grows rapidly while the costs steadily come down. In 1977, solar panels cost $75 per watt; today, the price has plummeted to about $1 per watt!
In this issue’s cover story (Lessons From Off-Grid Living), homesteader Cam Mather outlines the 20-year adventure he and his wife, Michelle, have enjoyed as they’ve developed their off-grid farm in Ontario. Today, their hybrid solar/wind system powers all the comforts of home, using only 16 percent as many kilowatt-hours as the average U.S. household. Plus, they never pay a utility bill.
The Mathers heat their 1888 farmhouse with wood cut from their property with a solar-powered chainsaw. If you were building a new home today, you could easily design and insulate it so that it would require even less energy than the Mathers’ retrofit.
Here in Kansas, MOTHER’s publisher, Bryan Welch, installed a grid-tied solar PV system on his barn last year. Under a lease-to-purchase contract with a local solar installer, Welch paid nothing upfront. Now his home and farm run entirely on renewable solar power instead of power from coal, and he makes monthly payments to the solar installer instead of to the local utility. Welch drives a leased Chevy Volt for his 60-mile daily commute — most of those miles on electric power provided by the sun. His savings in reduced fuel costs virtually pay for the car. Welch and his wife, Carolyn, are looking at new plug-in electric cars that will lower their fuel bill (and carbon footprint) even further.
This good news about renewable energy extends well beyond wiser-living possibilities on our homesteads. Large-scale wind farms can now deliver electricity at rates that are competitive with those of coal-burning plants, and dozens of utility-scale solar PV power plants are coming online.
In the green transportation sector, electric and hybrid cars have now entered the mainstream. The all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius are both priced at less than $30,000. Many of us can’t or don’t wish to spend that much money on a new car, but used versions of these vehicles will be entering the market in a few years. As engineers continue to improve batteries and charging systems, prices on new models are sure to continue to come down while performance steadily improves. (Stay tuned: Our next issue will include an article about five amazing plug-in electric cars now on the market or racing down the pipeline.)
From where we sit, the transition from fossil fuels to solar energy and other renewables is making remarkable progress.