Solar Power Pioneer Rebekah Carpenter's Circuitous Path to Success


Rebekah Carpenter puts her long-time industry expertise to work in New York at her company, Fingerlakes Renewables Solar Energy.
Photo by Aur Bec

The opportunity to install solar-electric systems showed up for off-grid energy pioneer Rebekah Carpenter in the form of an offer to travel to Mali in western Africa. She would be tasked with installing an off-grid system — if she first could learn the trade. Twenty years later, solar power has become a part of who she is, which is founder of Fingerlakes Renewables in Ithaca, N.Y., where she has built longevity in a once-volatile industry, riding through inflation, subsidy onset and removal, technology wins and losses, and utility price increases. MOTHER EARTH NEWS blogger, Aur Beck, spent some time talking with Rebekah recently. The interview is edited for clarity.

What does off-grid living mean for you?

Living off the grid, none of my daily needs require the infrastructures of electric, gas, or oil to maintain function. For me, off-grid living is not a heroic statement on self-sufficiency — all that I've built has been on the shoulders of giants before me — but is a matter of function: Were a catastrophe to occur, I could continue my lifestyle fairly smoothly with little upheaval or change.

This is my return to a more intentional relationship with daily function. The investment of time and money into an infrastructure that doesn't require the continued work of anyone else to maintain creates an island of sorts; the number of people and households involved in off-grid lifestyles may vary, but there is a greater aspect of interior communication rather than exterior involvement in that circle.

This intentionality means living within a budget that is based on intangible resources — like total hours of sun per day — rather than representative resources, like cash money sent to the utility. In a grid setting, there is an illusion, if not a reality, of infinite availability throughout every day. The reckoning of cost comes after consumption. In off-grid, there is a limited resource that can be expanded if the reckoning of cost comes prior to consumption and is, therefore, more an investment than a payment.

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