Sunday, January 21, 2007

Eco-friendly Iowans thrive off the grid

They live just like everyone else, but harvest their power from nature


By MIKE KILEN
DES MOINES REGISTER
January 21, 2007


Decorah, Ia. - Living off the grid conjures up images of a guy hunched over a wood stove in a dim, cold cabin in the middle of nowhere.

He's scratching at a long, gray beard that matches his long, gray ponytail and talking about the righteous 1960s.

But it's a new day. Global warming, volatile oil prices and a resurgent conservation ethic are beginning to break down the stereotype.

Iowans living without being hooked up to utilities are no longer social dropouts.

Tucked in the rolling hills northwest of Decorah, an off-the-grid neighborhood has expanded in the last five years with the arrival of college employees, artists, company owners and organic farmers. Eight homes in a 16-square-mile area are off the grid, and a few others are supplementing energy needs using the powers of the Earth.

Instead of burning fuel in furnaces and pulling electricity from huge power companies, they use the sun, the wind and wood-burning stoves to live quite comfortably.

In the morning, they get up and stoke a fire in the stove. They watch the wind velocity and check the weather for sunshine.

They don't expect a blast of water out of the faucet because much of it flows in a slow stream to the house via gravity.

Instead of just pulling out the vacuum, they consider how much energy is in storage.

They don't have to be reminded to turn out the lights when they leave a room.

Some people in town refer to them as the "granola eaters," but they just laugh at the label.

"We didn't come out here wanting to freeze in the dark," said Dale Kittleson, 47.

Kittleson is a tall, slim husband and father of two children who co-owns Wild Rose Timberworks Inc., a timber-frame home builder.

"People ask us how we can live like this. Jeepers, I just come home, turn on the lights, grab a cold beer from the refrigerator and watch the news on TV," he said.

"The only difference is when you are making your own energy, you are more aware of the energy you use."

As he says this, his daughter Clara, 10, gets a drink of water in the kitchen of the spacious, warm timber-frame and returns to listen at the dining room table.

If you've got kids, hold on here in disbelief: She flicked off the light switch after leaving the kitchen.

"Our system is part of our whole life out here, but it doesn't steer us," he said.

"This time of year when the days are short and have less sun, maybe we won't vacuum. But we are not doing without."

They are intimately in tune with the wind and the sun. And kilowatt hours.



A NEW BUZZWORD has emerged for 2007: micro-generation. The word means people who generate their own energy.

It's unknown how many Iowans live off the grid.

In the 2000 Census, 238 people reported using solar energy to heat their homes, and 13,243 said they used wood.

But the interest in renewable energy continues to grow, said Michelle Kenyon Brown, executive director of IRENEW, a nonprofit organization in Iowa City that promotes renewable energy.

The number of people who get IRENEW's newsletter has doubled to 3,000 in the last three years, Brown said, and most are interested in living off the grid.

A new development in Fairfield called Abundance Ecovillage is under construction with the goal of 21 single-family homes.

"Progress is being made," said Brown. "But there are challenges, including those that want to supplement their energy needs and interconnect (with energy companies).

"The process is difficult and requires fees and insurance."

Those who choose to live entirely off the grid invest in considerable research and upfront costs.

In Decorah, expertise on renewable energy is traded like produce in the town square.

The Oneota Food Co-op serves as a center of knowledge among like-minded conservationists.

Manager Steve McCarger has lived off the grid since 1982 and steers people in that direction.

Decorah has attracted a number people living off the grid partly because of its topography. The heavily wooded, bluff-filled, unglaciated area attracts nature lovers.

The land also wasn't heavily farmed in row crops, leaving remote areas that are desirable but have no power connections.

Renewable fever has also spread to town.

The latest development is high-end construction by Larry Grimstad, a retired bank CEO, who built an elegant, 3,000-square-foot limestone home in Decorah.

He is nearing the day when he will produce all the energy it takes to operate a modern home with flat-screen TVs, stereos and appliances.

Yes, it can be a comfortable life off the grid.

McCarger raised two daughters in his place on wind and solar power.

"We didn't want to contribute to the nuclear power industry, global warming or acid rain," McCarger said of spending $15,000 on his wind and solar systems. "It was never about the money."

The kids didn't even mind. They only threw a few fits about having to get up early to get firewood.

"As I got older, went away to college and overseas and came back, I developed a greater appreciation for what they have done," said daughter Hannah McCarger, 21.

"Both of my parents believe they can make a difference in the world in the choices they make in their lifestyle.

"They see the struggles in the world, and they think they can do their part. It's a matter of conviction."



IT'S A NEW ERA here off gravel Coon Creek Road in Winneshiek County.

In the late 1990s, four couples got together to hunt for land in the country to create a neighborhood. After months of looking, the group found a plot of 90 timbered acres and began building in 1998.

They discovered it would cost $10,000 to bring power out to the hills. That's when they considered solar and wind power.

They banded together to buy a wind-powered water pump that draws from a well into a 4,000-gallon tank. It uses gravity to flow into each of three houses sitting within eyesight of each other a few football fields away. (The fourth member hasn't yet developed a full-time home).

At first they were a bit skittish. They would run to the well and check the meter to see if the tank was full.

It was never a problem. A little bit of sun goes a long way.

Each home purchased solar photo voltaic power systems and wind turbines for electricity.

Kittleson says his equipment was roughly $10,000. The homes have ordinary lights and power outlets because the DC power is converted to AC and runs through traditional wiring.

The well-insulated houses are equipped with wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating. They smell earthy and warm; it's like sitting in a bistro with a pizza oven. Near each home, cords of wood are stacked high for the winter.

The places are also designed to use "passive" solar energy.

Huge south-facing windows draw in the low-hanging sun's power in the winter. Overhangs protect the home from the overhead sun in the summer.

Kittleson hosts school classes, and the kids are amazed to hear rock music blaring from a boom box hooked up to a tiny solar panel as a demonstration.

Kittleson steps in front of the panel, shades the sun and the radio turns off.

"Our power plant is 93 million miles away," he tells them.

One of the families recently decided to sell and move to town. They were concerned that an off-the-grid home might not sell well.

It never even hit the market.

"We've lived in Des Moines for 30 years, and for 10 years we've been looking for a home that is off the grid," said buyer Pat Brockett, 59.

"We even bought land in Arizona and Utah, but discovered we wanted to stay in the Midwest."

In 2005, Brockett and her partner, Barb Ettleson, drove to Decorah, stopped at the Oneota Food Co-op and by chance heard about a home that might be for sale.

They bought it the same day.

"We've always been alternative people," Brockett said. "That freedom to not be connected really appealed to us. And we are very concerned about using Earth's resources.

"It was like a dream."

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