Costly PG&E installation fees force some into alternatives : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Posted at 8:59 p.m. PST Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001

By living free of power grid, families enjoy day in the sun Costly PG&E installation fees force some into alternatives

BY DANA HULL Mercury News

Serge Rutman lives the quintessential Silicon Valley life. He's an electrical engineer at Intel's main campus, his commute is an hour and he lives in a large house equipped with modern conveniences.

But he never receives a PG&E bill.

His home was warm, toasty and well-lit during last week's snowstorm that cut power to hundreds of other homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. No blackout worries, no fretting about escalating utility bills, no listening to the news for the latest information on Stage 3 alerts.

Rutman lives ``off grid.'' His rural home on a remote ridge isn't hooked up to any power lines, but instead, is powered by solar energy and propane gas.

``We've had no power outages for over two years,'' Rutman said. ``I don't want to be dependent on a utility.''

Most Bay Area residents think off grid means hermits dwelling in yurts in Humboldt County, getting by with no power at all. But the term means the exact opposite. Instead of doing without electricity, it refers to the growing number of people across the country who have decided to generate their own.

And Silicon Valley -- overflowing with engineers, fiercely independent, forever inventive -- has become a pocket of the off-grid subculture.

Real Goods, a catalog company that sells components needed for off-grid living, opened its fourth store in November 1999 -- in Los Gatos. The company's flagship store is located at the Solar Living Center in Hopland, 95 miles north of San Francisco, and it has outlets in Eugene, Ore., and Berkeley.

``People in Silicon Valley are not afraid of technology,'' said John Schaeffer, the company's CEO. ``They know that solar power works, whereas a lot of other people in this country still think it's an environmental pipe dream. There are a lot of educated people in the valley, and they really value their independence. They don't like being held hostage by the power companies.''

Like many others who live off grid, the Rutmans pay careful attention to their energy use and conserve a great deal. But the sun and an extensive battery system provide the juice they need for a home computer, television and microwave.

Eight 75-watt solar panels near the back deck generate most of the electricity that he, his wife and young son use in their 2,500-square-foot home. The entire system -- solar panels, batteries, inverter, wiring and meters -- cost $13,000.

The modern kitchen, complete with microwave and propane refrigerator, includes a Tri-Metric battery monitor, a digital meter that allows Rutman to gauge how many volts, amps and amp-hours of electricity are being used at any given time.

``Sometimes my kid says, `Dad, is there going to be enough electricity in the morning to watch cartoons?' '' said Rutman with a laugh. ``But there usually is.''

A quiet community

In California, more than 8,000 solar energy enthusiasts are thought to live off grid. Exact numbers are difficult to determine because many of those off grid live in rural hamlets and fiercely protect their right to privacy. Mendocino and Humboldt counties are considered ground zero, but off-grid communities thrive throughout Washington and Oregon, Colorado, the Southwest, Vermont and the north slope of Alaska.

Information and tips on how to live off grid abound on the Internet. Many people interviewed began researching off-grid possibilities online with the help of Web sites such as www.offgrid and a number of user groups devoted to the subject.

More than 45,000 people subscribe to Home Power, the ad-thick magazine Richard Perez -- a physicist and engineer -- founded in 1987. An additional 55,000 download the issue for free every month from www.

The energy crisis sweeping across the West has sent subscription inquiries through the roof, and Perez now appears on four or five talk shows a week.

``People still think that off grid means living without, and freezing in the dark,'' Perez said. ``But folks are all of a sudden rediscovering solar energy. It's not that the rates went up. The main factor in California is the blackouts. People don't like that. Electricity has become an essential part of our lives.''

In the early days, off-grid homes were bare-bones affairs: Effectively storing the power of the sun was often touch and go. But in recent years, the technology of photovoltaic modules and inverters, which transform the sun's direct current (DC) into AC (actual current) electricity, have advanced by leaps and bounds.

``A good inverter 10 years ago lasted for about a year before it blew up,'' Perez said. ``But there's been a real changing of the guard. The inverters are much better, and all of a sudden we can shop for real appliances like everybody else. It's been a big step in making off-grid living more palatable.''

Though a number of people consciously decide to live off grid for environmental or philosophical reasons, for others it is a simple financial decision. Many rural homes are built on land that is far away from power lines. Pacific Gas & Electric charges $45 a foot to install lines to such customers.

``There's nothing illegal about not being connected to PG&E,'' said John de Courcy, a building official with Santa Cruz County. ``For some folks it's a lifestyle thing. But for others, when PG&E says it will cost you so many thousands of dollars to run lines, they decide to go the other way.''

Minimal investment

Cliff Jenkins lives on 60 acres of land in Portola Heights, between Portola Valley and Skyline Ridge in San Mateo County. In the early 1970s, he and his neighbors met with PG&E about getting power lines.

``There were 12 families, and the guy from PG&E said it would cost about $250,000 to get our neighborhood hooked up,'' Jenkins said. ``And we all sort of decided that solar might be a better deal.''

Jenkins and his neighbors decided to stay off grid. While some use solar power, others use wind generators. Jenkins bought a few generators and a rack of batteries, and that's it. He spends about $30 a month on propane and gas.

``We generate all of the power that we consume, and that's the way it should be,'' Jenkins said. ``People in the flatlands used to think that everyone who lived up here in the mountains was crazy. Well, we don't look quite as crazy as we used to.''

Contact Dana Hull at or (510) 790-7311.

-- Tess (, February 21, 2001


--good for all those forward thinking people! Getting a bottom line price, then going for it, is much preferable than having an open end lease for renting your tiny share of the grid, never paying that off, then paying for the fuel that gets burned, never paying that off and having no control of the price. The renewables and alternatives are here, they work, they come in any budget and configuration, most do- able. for most people, they need a transition stage, as in at least having serious backup system for running some minimal appliances and devices, then keep adding to it and using it until you are "off" grid completely. You work both ends to the middle, cut usage, add to personal productivity. and now with many lenders offering it as a package directly with the home mortgage, that makes it even more attractive.

-- zog (, February 22, 2001.

Can someone verify or comment on the statement in the above article that 8 75 watt panels run an entire 2500 sq ft house? Even with a propane fridge,I would have thought it would take considerably more than that,since they seem to have all the modern stuff. An awesome battery bank perhaps?

-- h (, February 22, 2001.

I have the same wattage, 600, and a 2000 ft² house.
With full sun days it is enough to cover lights, movies,
Internet and radio. On overcast days I have to make
up the difference by running a generator. Generator
runs weekends for laundry and pumping water to a
1400 gallon water tank. I start the generator if I'm
going to use a high power tool. The batteries have
enough power but the system is always at a deficit.
The plan was to have 1500 watts from the solar but
I've been waiting for the price to drop for the last
12 years ::::-§

-- spider (, February 23, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ