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Off the Grid…Literally

 
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Amy Seidl
Photo credit: Jesse Baum

Source: Jesse Baum, EAN/University of Vermont Clean Energy Internship Program

Off the Grid...Literally

When Amy Seidl and her husband moved to Vermont from Colorado in 1996, they purchased a home in Huntington. The property included a 600 square foot house with a 1KW residential wind turbine hooked up to a generator to provide electricity to the home. The power lines, Seidl explains, stopped half a mile from the home.

Seidl and her husband already had experience living “off the grid” (where power is supplied from a decentralized source rather than purchased from a utility company). Back in Colorado, the couple had lived off grid during summer months, utilizing the abundant sunlight with solar panels. Now, however, they had  moved to a place where there were only about 90 days of sunlight each year. 

Not that it stopped them.

“There are lots of populations at the 43rd parallel, which is where we are, like Berlin and Munich in Germany, that have been so successful in transitioning to renewables and solar in particular,” she says, “so we knew it was possible.” Her home and small community now serve as an example of this possibility—five homes in the hills of Huntington, each off the grid, powered by solar, wood heat and extreme energy efficiency.

The Vermont Frontier

“For me, being off the grid was a kind of activism. A lot of our power at the time was coming from coal and nuclear, and I was not going be complicit. There was something very empowering about that, and something very educational,” Seidl reflects.

The couple installed a 3.5 kilowatt ground-mounted solar array to power the house. Since the panels could only generate electricity during the day, they bought batteries for power storage that could hold about a week’s supply of power. They expanded the house to 1200 square feet, using the most efficient construction techniques, and the home now holds two times the people that it originally did. Yet they are able to power their home with only the small solar array, a woodstove for heat, and a backup propane generator. 

"For me, being off the grid was a kind of activism.  A lot of our power at the time was coming from coal and nuclear, and I was not going to be complicit."

After living off the grid for over 20 years, conserving energy feels natural to Seidl. “Leaving a lightbulb on feels like a terrible waste,” she says.  To maximize efficiency, every appliance in her home is extremely efficient and has a special switch, which means that it will not draw power when it is not in use. The family also has a charger for their electric car, so that Seidl can use the solar power that the home generates for transportation, too. To save heat, they have insulated their home with close-cell spray foam insulation and were able to get a rebate from Efficiency Vermont for these improvements.

A changing system

Though Seidl’s system does not allow her to feed power back into the grid, she supports what she calls “greening the grid”—where solar systems connected to the grid sell their power back to the grid, thereby enlarging the percentage of electricity in the system that comes from clean, solar energy. She notes that going solar is far cheaper than when she first began using photovoltaic panels for energy. “With the kind of wholesale change from people on the grid electing to invest in alternatives… I would say, stay on the grid, and contribute to that transition, getting to 90 percent renewables by 2050.”

“I think when we look back, historically, we’ll see that this period of time was so remarkable for its transition. It’s happening in front of us!”