It’s Easy Being Green: Living Off the Grid

Residents in Oregon and Los Angeles are joining the ranks of Americans unplugging from commercial power and generating their own.

A panoramic view with Mount Jefferson on the horizon is visible from a home in the Three Rivers Recreational Area in Lake Billy Chinook, OR, where everyone lives "off the grid." (AP/Don Ryan)
A panoramic view with Mount Jefferson on the horizon is visible from a home in the Three Rivers Recreational Area in Lake Billy Chinook, OR, where everyone lives "off the grid." (AP/Don Ryan)

We all depend on power from the electricity grid to run our air conditioning, and municipal water systems to fuel our laundry and showers. Most Americans do, anyway. In the Three Rivers community of Lake Billy Chinook, OR, more than 250 homes have committed to living completely disconnected from the commercial water and power utilities on which most Americans rely—a decision more popularly known as living “off the grid.”

Three Rivers residents generate most of their power from solar panels on their rooftops or on nearby freestanding structures positioned to more efficiently capture the sun. Some supplement the energy with wind power. The solar energy is enough to power their computers, lights, big-screen TVs, microwaves, and refrigerators.

“Ninety percent of the people here, if (outside) power were offered to them, they’d turn it down,” says Gary Sweet, who moved to the community a few years ago.

Residents have invested in their off-grid community for a variety of reasons. They joke about the peace from sirens and car alarms, the closeness with nature, and the return to American values. By living off the grid, their use of resources is limited to renewable energy, water, and food. They cannot use more than they can produce, and so their carbon footprint is virtually zero. By relying on solar power, they emit no pollution and are immune to energy price hikes. Solar is the most dependable power source available for off-grid living.

For many, the idea of living off the grid seems unattainable. However, an increasing number of communities like Three Rivers are taking the plunge to prove that sustainable, off-grid life is feasible and fulfilling. Off-grid living is taking off in such far-flung places as California, Texas, and Wisconsin, mostly regions where solar power is plentiful and plugging into the grid is difficult due to the distance between communities.

An estimated 180,000 homes are currently operating off the grid, and the number increases by about a third each year. Many rural and suburban homeowners are also using partial alternative systems with solar panels to supplement power from a commercial power grid. If these homeowners produce more power than they can use, they can sell it back to the power companies, who are usually required to buy it.

Homeowners aren’t alone, either. The Los Angeles Community College District received the 2007 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for decreasing its dependence on fossil fuels and upping its efforts to generate enough electricity from solar sources to take its campuses off the grid.

With creative solutions like those seen in Three Rivers and the Los Angeles Community College District, both individuals and communities can unplug from “the grid,” reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and make a significant impact on climate change.

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