This is the final installment of a five-part series called "Off the Grid," in which we explore environmentally sustainable, self-sufficient communities across the globe. We'll attempt to answer the question: Is green, off-grid living our future?
Previous: The 'Simple Life' on Canada's Lasqueti Island
"What's the use of a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?"
-- Henry David Thoreau The "American Dream" of the two-story, brick-and-mortar home with a backyard and white picket fence is in the process of being re-imagined. Though what it stands for -- security, stability, shelter -- still holds value, its literal manifestation is rejected by a movement toward a more environmentally and economically sustainable housing paradigm, green housing experts have said.
With the steady depletion of the resources necessary to maintain modern housing -- "300+ million people are enjoying historically unprecedented living standards [built upon] non-renewable resources," according to the Post-Carbon Institute -- coupled with an unstable economic climate and a growing distrust in the state, some predict that the future of housing is moving inevitably off the grid.
'A Better Way of Living'
Though plausible in theory, will off-grid living -- autonomous housing structures independent of municipal water supplies, sewer systems, and gas and power lines -- ever truly transition into the mainstream? Green housing experts such as author and Huffington Post blogger Nick Rosen would argue yes. According to Rosen, there is a "pent up demand" for off-grid living, and society has become "ready" for a simpler, self-reliant housing (and lifestyle) model. Currently, there are already 750,000 off-grid households in the United States, with that number increasing 10 percent each year, he said. Companies like GE and IBM have gone so far as to predict that within a decade, up to half of American homes will be generating their own renewable electricity.
Such beliefs are further bolstered by the rise of "voluntary simplicity" movements and the findings of numerous academics specializing in sustainability studies. According to Dodd Galbreath, the executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Practice at Lipscomb University in Tennessee, the large "suburban castle" and sprawling lawn is a "used-to-be success ideal" that is being increasingly viewed as not only an environment-killer but a lifestyle-killer. ("This generation knows that the inputs of pollution and waste must eventually equal the output of a lower quality of life," Galbreath told AOL Real Estate.) Galbreath adds that the excessive burdens attached to the plugged-in, brick-and-mortar dream (mortgage and utility bills, the cleaning and maintenance of unnecessarily large living spaces) are a form of modern-day slavery.
It is this so-called "slavery" that radically green communities across the globe -- the "foot soldiers" of the sustainable housing revolution -- strive to be emancipated from. From the treehouse-dwellers of Costa Rica and "earthship" residents of New Mexico, to the "ecovillagers" of Northeast Missouri and the inhabitants of Canada's Lasqueti Island, citizens of modern society are actively choosing a lifestyle unshackled from excessive materialism and, most significantly, dependence on the state. Residents in each community generate their own energy via only renewable resources, collect rainwater via catchment systems, compost their own waste and even produce their own food. ("If I could do these things on my own instead of relying on the state to provide them," mused Paul St. Pierre, a professor at Simon Fraser University and resident of off-grid Lasqueti Island, "I might be a human being and my life have meaning.") (Story continues after the gallery.)
As a result of their self-sufficiency, these off-gridders remain unaffected by the continuous water shortages faced by other Americans and electricity outages ("My power never goes down in a storm like I hear on the radio of my surrounding communities," said fellow Lasqueti Island resident Mark Young. "I do not feel vulnerable. I feel self-sufficient"). These global off-gridders do not pay electricity, gas or water bills; many interviewed by AOL Real Estate do not pay mortgages. They do not require lawn mowers, gardeners or housekeepers; most off-gridders do not even have (or need) vehicles. But perhaps the most significant benefit found across all of these communities is their ability to live a less materialistic, more community and values-driven lifestyle that is "richer," residents said.
Contrary to popular belief, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage founder Tony Sirna argued that off-grid living isn't about depriving oneself of a comfortable modern lifestyle. (Rosen mentions in his book, "Off the Grid," that modern-day off-gridders, unlike their earlier counterparts, enjoy the same level of physical comfort as "traditional" home-dwellers). According to Sirna, the Ecovillagers of Dancing Rabbit are able to enjoy a highly satisfying yet ecologically responsible lifestyle without excess. This is achieved, he said, by utilizing the abundance of natural renewable resources directly surrounding them (sun, wind and water), and learning to develop resource awareness and respect -- something that today's mainstream "culture of consumption" severely lacks.
"Living [off-grid] has meant a drastic reduction in my own level of consumption, without any degradation in my standard of living or happiness," Sirna told AOL Real Estate. "I feel very fulfilled in my day-to-day life. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think this was a better way of living."
Better Than 'Better'? The Micro Grid Alternative
Despite the ecological, economical and psychological benefits offered by the off-grid household, as gleaned from AOL Real Estate's study of global off-grid communities, some argue that off-grid living could still be a very long way from hitting the mainstream. Architect and Green Building Alliance member Dennis Thompson believes that living off the grid is a foreign concept still unimaginable to many, for a number of reasons. One, is the stigma.
New Mexico Earthship resident and education director Kristen Jacobsen admits, for example, that there is a still-pervasive stigma associated with off-grid communities ("There is a myth that [off-gridders] are all hippies, cult members and survivalists," Jacobsen tells AOL Real Estate, though our findings indicate that is not the case.) Despite its growing prevalence and even celebrity endorsements, off-grid living is still seen by many as a pioneering lifestyle associated with "hippies and environmental mavericks." Rosen himself adds that many are still married to the longstanding ideal that houses should look and be "a certain way."
But even those who are unaffected by the stigma are still met with a slew of practical challenges once the choice has been made. For starters, many traditional homeowners wanting to make the ultimate sustainable leap would still desire geographical proximity to major cities for career reasons. ("We don't expect everyone to move to the middle of nowhere and build a straw-bale house," Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage resident Alline Anderson told AOL Real Estate. "That's quite impractical.") But according to Thompson: To live sustainably on the edge of society, only to drive long distances to work each day, is still unsustainable and defeats the purpose of the off-grid lifestyle.
Then, there are financing difficulties. According to the Organization of American States' Department of Sustainable Development, most Americans require around 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity every year. Most off-gridders achieve this via a complex combination of solar and wind power sources. But these systems don't come cheap: An aspiring off-grid homeowner may need to initially invest tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket in solar panels, wind turbines and DC batteries -- not to mention rainwater cisterns, filters, septic tanks and "grey water" systems. Securing financing for off-grid homes is also no easy feat. Though there are lending companies that specialize in financing off-grid homes, the majority of banks will not mortgage an unconventional, off-grid property due to concerns regarding resale and comparables.
The hurdles don't end once financing has been secured, either: Off-gridders admit that the initial adaptation to an off-grid lifestyle can be problematic. Almost all the residents interviewed by AOL Real Estate admitted that acclimatizing to the lifestyle was a steep learning curve, and that a new set of survival-based skills had to be developed. Erica Hogan, for example, made the move from Crested Butte, Colo., to build her treehouse community in the remote rainforests of Costa Rica. During the construction of her first self-sufficient treehouse, she and her husband, Mateo, were forced to live in a tent in the mud. The initial process of going off-grid, she said, was "chaotic, difficult and stressful."
"Had we known what we were getting ourselves into, we likely wouldn't have started the journey," Hogan told AOL Real Estate. "Now, of course, we're glad we did it. But it hasn't been easy."
Perhaps a more feasible, and what some green experts would call "mainstream friendly" alternative to singular, household-size off-grid energy systems is the micro grid. According to Sheri Koones, author of "Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid," the most optimal solution for wide-scale sustainable modern housing is not the independent, self-sufficient household untethered from any type of grid, but the renewable-energy municipal-grid system. These small-scale systems would generate, distribute and regulate power flow and, most importantly, would allow homeowners to send back excess energy produced by their homes. (Meaning homeowners are just as likely to be uploading power to the grid as downloading from it.) Numerous studies have revealed that the micro grid could better (and more swiftly) deliver a "100% green-energy future" for housing.
"Micro grids allow us to work with the laws of nature to conserve energy and to eliminate transmission losses," Galbreath adds. "Micro grids frankly get power closest to the user, and give the nation's energy supply less vulnerability."
Galbreath cites the successful case of Kristianstad, Sweden, a municipality that boasts a micro grid based upon three renewable sources. The first is a central wood boiler heating plant that utilizes energy from local wood chips and materials. The second is methane from agricultural and slaughterhouse waste, in addition to household food waste (this powers all buses, delivery trucks, taxis, city vehicles and some central heating). The third source is wind power. Similarly, the German municipalities of Freiburg and Schonau have implemented the micro grid system, reliant on energy generated from solar panels and wind turbines.
The micro grid system has proven so successful that even communities consisting entirely of off-grid households have tapped into the idea. Just last year, the residents of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage were offered the option of connecting to a newly-built micro grid system. Though the majority of residents still remain entirely off-grid and generate their own power, they have the opportunity to connect to a net-zero energy grid that also allows them to be net exporters of renewable energy. (The residents that have opted to connect to the micro grid currently send back three times the electricity consumed). According to Sirna, this proves that neighborhoods, towns, regions and even whole cities can power themselves fully with renewable energy via micro grids.
'It's "a Future," Rather Than "the Future" '
Individual off-grid households and communities built around the micro-grid system are proven to be efficient, low-impact "futures" of housing. But what about the fate of the city? Although cities generally suffer a poor reputation when it comes to sustainability and have been the impetus for many off-gridders in choosing their current lifestyle, ironically, high-density cities could be another saving grace for modern housing. ("The age of suburbanization is over, and the coming decades will be a time of re-urbanization," reports from the Urban Land Institute reveal). Therefore, the retrofitting of existing major cities for a low-carbon future through championing renewable energy sources in residential and commercial buildings, ecologically-responsible urban planning (less roads, more walking and cycle routes) and intensive urban agriculture could be another viable option for a sustainable future.
In fact, according to Galbreath, every major intensive study on the future of housing has concluded that high-density megacities offer the biggest bang for the buck in terms of energy efficiency: they boast a lower energy-use-per-dwelling average than detached housing in suburban areas. His thoughts are echoed by Thompson, who confirms that the future of sustainable modern housing is in population-dense and increasingly eco-conscious cities such as New York, where denizens do not require motor vehicles to commute to and from work, and future residential developments are slowly but steadily going net-zero.
So where exactly does this leave off-grid living? Our reporting has revealed that the individuals across the globe that have chosen to live off the grid (who, contrary to popular belief, are spread across a range of educational, ethnic, occupational and even socio-economic backgrounds) have consensually reported "fulfilling" and "meaningful" self-sufficient lifestyles in line with their value systems. Though off-gridders face challenges particularly concentrated around initial financing, construction and lifestyle transition, the personal and environmental payoff is colossal: A negligible carbon footprint for many homeowners, complete independence from the whims and failures of utility companies, and no utility bills.
Rosen, Galbreath and Sirna agree that off-grid living remains a viable green model for the future of modern housing. But that doesn't mean it's the only model -- nor is it necessarily the best.
Cities will always play a huge part in the creation of a truly sustainable future. Similarly, localized renewable energy grids allow for a more efficient circulation of power. Our reporting has found that the success of modern housing is dependent on principles such as simplification, the effective utilization of natural resources to reduce ecological impact, and the convergence of home design with function (the homes of the Greater World Earthship Community of Taos, N.M., are exemplary prototypes). But living off-grid is not the only way to achieve these principles. Ultimately, while off-grid living has proven successful for the majority of its proselytes, our series shows that though it may not necessarily emerge as the wider housing model for the future, its principles will certainly shape and inform it.
"I believe that off-grid living is 'a future,' rather than 'the future,' " admitted Greater World resident and Realtor John Kejr. "It's a lifestyle choice."
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