Living Entirely Off the Grid

  • Solar panels aren't just for rocket scientists anymore. Consumers are now starting to use solar and other alternative energies to power their homes. (Photo courtesy of

With no power lines in sight, one western Pennsylvania couple lives pretty much like the rest of us. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has this story of a home “off the grid”:


With no power lines in sight, one western Pennsylvania couple lives pretty much like the rest of us. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ann Murray has this story of home “off the grid”:

Ted Carns is busy hanging art in the foyer of his house. While he holds a picture in place against the wall, he plugs in an electric drill.

(sound of drill)

Ted and Kathy Carns’ entire two-bedroom house uses electricity powered by the sun or wind. Their rustic stone and plank home sits on top of a steep wooded hill, miles from the nearest neighbor.

“There’s no water, there’s no soil, there’s no public utilities up here. So everything that we designed, you have to keep in mind, was done in this harsh condition.”

It’s taken the Carns twenty years to design and expand their alternative energy system. Ted, a self-described scrounger and handyman, has found many components through flea markets and friends. In fact, Kathy says their off-grid system began with a gift of shoebox-sized batteries.

Kathy: “Somebody gave us a bunch of batteries-nickel cadmium batteries. And then we started thinking about how to recharge the batteries. Thinking wind. The windmill came first.”

Ted: “It took me eight climbs to install the new windmill, I had a different one up there. The bottom of the tower I built.”

Murray: “How tall is that?”

Ted: “Seventy-six feet.”

(sound of chimes)

The metal tower now looms over the house, outbuildings and organic garden. As the wind whips the chimes at its base, the turbine blades whirl and drive an alternator to generate electricity. The electricity is stored in a bank of batteries.

Murray: “Is the wind consistent here?”

Carns: “Winter good. Summer not. Then in summer the solar panels kick in. So it just sort of balances out.”

The Carns’ rooftop solar panels accept sunlight into silicon chips and convert the light into electricity. Because it’s sunny today, Kathy can run their specially manufactured clothes washer with solar energy. First, she pushes a button on the living room wall and a red light starts to blink. The light indicates that stored electricity is being converted from a DC to AC current.

“That means the house is on 110 power. Turn the water on and then just… It’s on.”

The Carns also vacuum when the sun shines or the wind blows. They run their TV, stereo and lights off 12-volt DC batteries, much like a car. They heat their water with solar energy in the summer and wood in the winter. And warm their house with a wood stove. They also capture air from underground and use it to refrigerate food and cool their house. All told, Ted and Kathy have spent about 3,000 dollars to upgrade their alternative energy system. Ted says, except for burning wood, the system is nonpolluting. He believes it’s also pretty much hassle free.

Carns: “There’s no inconvenience that we’ve seen… There’s maybe two or three days that we don’t have ample hot water. The nice thing about that is that it – you never stop appreciating the conveniences because periodically for a very short time sometimes you have to do without.”

Perez: “More and more people are discovering that they can power their homes and small businesses using solar and wind.”

Richard Perez is the founder and publisher of Home Power Magazine. Perez says states are doing far more than the federal government to encourage the residential use of renewable energy.

“There are tax credits, there are rebates, there are buy-downs. Every state has a slightly different scheme but most states have some sort of financial incentive for installing small-scale renewables in your home.”

Perez says homeowners don’t have to wait wait for government support to set up a system. Ted and Kathy Carns agree.

(sound of plates and silverware)

As the couple gets ready for dinner, Kathy says they want to inspire the many people who come to see how they live off-grid.

“We have a friend who has a solar lawnmower now. We have friends in Philadelphia that took some solar panels; it’s not their total system, but it’s a little part of their system. If we get enough company and enough people have been here, it sort of branches out, and goes off.”

An estimated 180 thousand households in the United States generate some or all of their own electricity. But alternative energy systems aren’t for everybody. For people who are downright afraid of technology or inconvenience, life off the power grid isn’t a real option just yet.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Ann Murray.

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Powerline Generates Controversy

No one likes the idea of a major powerline running through their
backyard. But a proposed bulk transmission line in Wisconsin is
generating more than the usual amount of controversy. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:


No one likes the idea of a major power line running through their backyard.
But a proposed bulk transmission line in Wisconsin is generating more than
the usual amount of controversy. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Stephanie Hemphill reports:

Steve Olson will never forget the night of June 25, 1998. He was working
the overnight shift at Minnesota power’s control center when something went
very wrong.

“I really didn’t know exactly what was going on at the time but I knew it was
serious. I knew it was something bigger than Minnesota power. It’s within
a matter of a minute or two we had half a dozen lines opening.”

The open lines meant the electric grid was breaking apart. The grid
connects Minnesota power to eight states and three Canadian provinces.
lightning strikes in Wisconsin – 200 miles away – caused the breakup. Over
40,000 people lost power.

John Heino is a spokesman for Minnesota power. He says that kind of
situation is one step away from a regional blackout.

“Normally this system is designed to work together so neighboring states and
systems can support each other, but in that situation, it just breaks up
into pieces and there’s no guarantee the power plants in that area are
enough to supply the load that’s left.”

The near miss convinced Minnesota power to do something to shore up the weak
link in the regional electric grid.

The Duluth-based company joined with Wisconsin Public Service to propose a
345-kilovolt transmission line from Duluth Minnesota to Wausau Wisconsin.
It would tap into cheap coal and hydro power from western Minnesota and
Manitoba. Heino says the new link would lighten the load on existing lines
and make service more reliable.

“With all these sources to the north and the west, and you have the Twin
Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago, to the south and the east, so there’s this
general day in and day out tendency for the power to flow to the south and
the east.”

The plan has attracted a lot of opposition along the proposed route. Eight
counties and over fifty local governments have gone on record against it.

Opponents worry about property values, loss of farmland, and health issues.

(sound of meeting)

At a recent meeting in superior Wisconsin, nearly 200 angry people showed up
to confront Minnesota power officials.

Person 1: “Both of these proposed routes would go through our property. We sunk our
life savings into it and we thought we could protect it. Lo and behold,
what did we know?”

Person 2: “As far as I’m concerned, this is a dinosaur. We’re looking at smaller
leading edge technologies that are more adapted to local generation.

Person 3: “I have a very nice neighbor and the power line is going across his land

he said to me, if it comes across my land, I’ll shoot’em.

Some Wisconsin farmers oppose the line because of problems they’re having
with other electric lines. Debbie Beyrl says ground currents have made her
cows sick. That’s reduced milk production and made it harder to keep the
business going. She’s also worried about her family’s health.

“I worry about my kids because they’re in the barn helping us. And I think
it’ll put us out of business, not that we’d want to quit but I think it
would finish us off, yeah.”

Power company officials say ground currents are caused by improper wiring or
local distribution lines, not large transmission lines.

But environmentalists question the need for the line. Chris Laforge sells
wind and solar electric generating systems. He says utilities could avoid
building expensive power lines by using alternative systems.

“It’s a perfect match. Distributed photovoltaic generation on rooftops of
large buildings can meet peak air conditioning demand because electricity
gets made right when you need it.”

Power companies say there’s great potential in alternative technologies, but
the current need is acute. Jim Loock is the chief electrical engineer
at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. That agency has the authority
to approve the line.

“Our electrical system is growing at 2-3% a year, so we need 200-300
megawatts of additional supply every year. That’s why we say part of the
equation is energy conservation and demand side management, we feel strongly
that the consumer needs to conserve energy and use it as wisely as possible.”

Hearings are scheduled this month in Minnesota and this summer in Wisconsin.
if approved, construction could start in September 2001.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.

States Act on Energy Deregulation (Part 1)

So far nearly two dozen states have tackled the difficult task of
deregulating their electric industries. California was the first to
approve it, and its residential and commercial users choose their
electric suppliers. Ohio is the most recent state to deregulate. It
took two years for the Buckeye state legislature to come to agreement.
Though each state’s experience is different, there are some common
threads. In the first of a two part series, the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Ley Garnett looks at three Great Lakes states (Illinois,
Ohio and Pennsylvania) where deregulation is taking root:

Nuclear Power Looks to Redefine Itself (Part 2)

More than 20 states have now approved some version of electric
deregulation and the new laws have set off a wave of changes within the
electric industry. Though this industry has always deeply affected the
natural environment, deregulation is bringing a new set of wild cards to
the table. It may provide one industry, nuclear power, the chance to
redefine itself. In the second of a two part series on deregulation,
the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Ley Garnett reports that conservation
groups and industry officials are just now beginning to sort out what it
all means: