Off-grid living beckons more than just hardy pioneer types. Here’s why it’s taking off.

USA Today

Off-grid living beckons more than just hardy pioneer types. Here’s why it’s taking off.

Katherine Roth – June 12, 2022

The Solterre Concept House in Nova Scotia, an off-grid home featured in the book "Downsize, Living Large In a Small House" by Sheri Koones.
The Solterre Concept House in Nova Scotia, an off-grid home featured in the book “Downsize, Living Large In a Small House” by Sheri Koones.

Living off-grid conjures images of survivalists in remote places and a rustic, “Little House on the Prairie” lifestyle with chores from morning to night.

Yet only a tiny fraction of people living off-grid do it like that, and fewer still live more than an hour from any town.

“Living off-grid doesn’t mean you don’t buy your groceries at a store or take your waste to the local dump,” says Gary Collins, who has lived off-grid, or mostly off-grid, for a decade. “It just means you are not connected to utility grids.”

He has published books on the subject, and leads online classes.

Although precise numbers of off-grid households are hard to come by, Collins estimates that only 1% of those living off-grid are in truly remote areas. Overall, the off-grid movement remains small. But it got a boost after the COVID-19 pandemic hit: City dwellers began to explore different ways of living.

Off-grid living unique to each person 

More-frequent power outages, utility grids’ struggles and price hikes to handle the severe weather events brought on by climate change have added to interest.

The view from an off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., one of the last remaining undeveloped coastal areas in California, located on a wildlife preserve. The Anacapa Architecture firm, in Santa Barbara, California, and Portland, Oregon, has designed several upscale off-grid homes in recent years, and has several more off-grid projects in the works.
The view from an off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., one of the last remaining undeveloped coastal areas in California, located on a wildlife preserve. The Anacapa Architecture firm, in Santa Barbara, California, and Portland, Oregon, has designed several upscale off-grid homes in recent years, and has several more off-grid projects in the works.

There are also those who remain connected to the grid but try to power their homes independent of it. Author Sheri Koones, whose books about sustainable houses include “Prefabulous and Almost Off the Grid,” cites the rise in “net metering,” when your property’s renewable energy source – usually solar – is producing more energy than you use, and your local utility pays you for the excess.

Today, off-grid living encompasses everything from “dry camping” in RVs (with no electrical or water hookups) to swank Santa Barbara estates, from modest dwellings tucked just outside of towns to – yes – remote rustic cabins.

Mount Jefferson looms over off-grid homes at the Three Rivers Recreational Area in Lake Billy Chinook, Ore., on April 26, 2007. Everyone in this community lives "off the grid", part of a growing number of homeowners now drawing all their power from solar, wind, propane and other sources.
Mount Jefferson looms over off-grid homes at the Three Rivers Recreational Area in Lake Billy Chinook, Ore., on April 26, 2007. Everyone in this community lives “off the grid”, part of a growing number of homeowners now drawing all their power from solar, wind, propane and other sources.

“Everyone does it differently and everyone does it their own way, because it’s their own adventure,” Collins says.

Elegant designs for a modern feel

The Anacapa Architecture firm, in Santa Barbara, California, and Portland, Oregon, has built several upscale off-grid homes in recent years, and has several more off-grid projects in the works.

“There’s definitely an increase in traction for this kind of lifestyle, especially in the last two years,” says Jon Bang, marketing and PR coordinator for Anacapa Architecture. “There’s a desire to get more in tune with nature.”

The lifestyle that Anacapa homes aim for is one of modernist elegance, not roughing it. Bang says new technologies can ensure comfortable self-sufficiency.

Another image of an off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., designed by The Anacapa Architecture firm. A high level of sensitivity to environmental impacts was exercised throughout all phases of design and construction, the firm says.
Another image of an off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., designed by The Anacapa Architecture firm. A high level of sensitivity to environmental impacts was exercised throughout all phases of design and construction, the firm says.

Such homes also are carefully designed to take advantage of the site’s landscape features with an eye to sustainability. For example, one of the firm’s homes is built into a hillside and has a green roof.

For those without the means to hire architects, there are numerous recent books, blogs, YouTube videos and more dedicated to the subject.

“A lot of people are interested in it now,” Collins says. “They contact me after watching something on TV or on YouTube and I tell them, `If you learned everything you know on YouTube, you are never going to survive.'”

He makes regular grocery runs, but also grows some of his own food and hunts wild game. He has his own septic system and well. While his previous home was entirely off-grid, with solar panels and a wind turbine for power, his current home is hooked up to an electrical grid, mainly, he says, because the bills are too low to warrant the cost of solar panels.

The off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., designed by the Anacapa Architecture firm, has nearly 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean.
The off-grid guest house in Hollister Ranch, Calif., designed by the Anacapa Architecture firm, has nearly 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean.
What health and safety considerations factor into the off-grid lifestyle? 

If you want to be totally self-sufficient, he says, it takes a lot of time and physical effort. You won’t have time to hold down a job. If you’re living in a remote location, you need to consider access to medical care, and whether you are mentally prepared for that much isolation.

“Your wood won’t cut itself. You’ll have to haul water,” he says, warning, “People die off-grid all the time, because of things like chain saw accidents. You have to be very careful and think everything through. No EMS will get to you in time.”

And depending on how it’s done, he says, off-grid living is not necessarily environmentally sustainable – not if you’re driving a fuel-guzzling truck and relying on a gas-powered generator, for example.

Still, improved alternative energy sources and construction techniques are making off-grid living more thinkable for more people, including those who don’t want to haul buckets of water from a well or live by candlelight.

Where did the off-grid movement begin?

Experimental architect Michael Reynolds pioneered the off-grid movement, which gained popularity in the early 1970s in Taos, New Mexico, according to the Taos Pueblo Tourism Department.

Reynolds designed off-the-grid homes called Earthships, according to Earthship Visitor Center, using sustainable building practices, including the usage of discarded steel and tin cans for the foundation of homes.

Architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds who used a variety of recycled materials to complete his first experimental home near Taos in 1974. Owned by lawyer Steve Natelson, shown in the picture, the home had a lawn on the roof, a common feature of sustainable design today, but an unusual concept for homes at the time. This experimental lawn required daily attention because of the dry environment.
Architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds who used a variety of recycled materials to complete his first experimental home near Taos in 1974. Owned by lawyer Steve Natelson, shown in the picture, the home had a lawn on the roof, a common feature of sustainable design today, but an unusual concept for homes at the time. This experimental lawn required daily attention because of the dry environment.
Inspired by the problem of trash and the lack of affordable housing, Reynolds created the “can brick” out of discarded steel and tin cans.
Inspired by the problem of trash and the lack of affordable housing, Reynolds created the “can brick” out of discarded steel and tin cans.
Architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds who lives near Taos, New Mexico, used tires, empty steel beer and soft drink cans as some of the materials used to build the structure, with a goal of building homes 20% cheaper than conventional methods at the time.
Architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds who lives near Taos, New Mexico, used tires, empty steel beer and soft drink cans as some of the materials used to build the structure, with a goal of building homes 20% cheaper than conventional methods at the time.
Interior view of the all aluminum beer and soft drink can experimental house near Taos, New Mexico.
Interior view of the all aluminum beer and soft drink can experimental house near Taos, New Mexico.
This photo from June 1974 shows a well housing that architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds built from old tires that have been covered with plaster.
This photo from June 1974 shows a well housing that architect and experimental house builder Michael Reynolds built from old tires that have been covered with plaster.

Iterations of these homes evolved over the next decade to incorporate passive solar and natural ventilation.

Reynolds’ legacy continues to be a presence in the region today through a fully off-the-grid community, using exclusively solar and wind power, northwest of Taos. The community sits on over 600 acres and includes more than 300 acres of shared land.

USA TODAY producer Camille Fine contributed.

Biden just declared heat pumps and solar panels essential to national defense

THe Conversation

Biden just declared heat pumps and solar panels essential to national defense – here’s why and the challenges ahead

Daniel Cohan, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Rice University – June 10, 2022

<span class="caption">President Joe Biden authorized use of the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of several climate-friendly technologies.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class=
President Joe Biden authorized use of the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of several climate-friendly technologies. Werner Slocum/NREL

Solar panels, heat pumps and hydrogen are all building blocks of a clean energy economy. But are they truly “essential to the national defense”?

President Joe Biden proclaimed that they are in early June when he authorized using the Defense Production Act to ramp up their production in the U.S., along with insulation and power grid components.

As an environmental engineering professor, I agree that these technologies are essential to mitigating our risks from climate change and overreliance on fossil fuels. However, efforts to expand production capabilities must be accompanied by policies to stimulate demand if Biden hopes to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Energy and the Defense Production Act

The United States enacted the Defense Production Act of 1950 at the start of the Korean War to secure materials deemed essential to national defense. Presidents soon recognized that essential materials extend far beyond weapons and ammunition. They have invoked the act to secure domestic supplies of everything from communications equipment to medical resources and baby formula.

For energy, past presidents used the act to expand fossil fuel supplies, not transition away from them. Lyndon Johnson used it to refurbish oil tankers during the 1967 Arab oil embargo, and Richard Nixon to secure materials for the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline in 1974. Even when Jimmy Carter used the act in 1980 to seek substitutes for oil, synthetic fuels made from coal and natural gas were a leading focus.

Today, the focus is on transitioning away from all fossil fuels, a move considered essential for confronting two key threats – climate change and volatile energy markets.

<span class="caption">Utility-scale solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels. This installation is at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class=
Utility-scale solar is now cheaper than fossil fuels. This installation is at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Department of Defense has identified numerous national security risks arising from climate change. Those include threats to the water supply, food production and infrastructure, which may trigger migration and competition for scarce resources. Fossil fuels are the dominant source of greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights additional risks of relying on fossil fuels. Russia and other adversaries are among the leading producers of these fuels. Overreliance on fossil fuels leaves the United States and its allies vulnerable to threats and to price shocks in volatile markets.

Even as the world’s top producer of oil and natural gas, the United States has been rocked by price spikes as our allies shun Russian fuels.

Targeting 4 pillars of clean energy

Transitioning from fossil fuels to cleaner energy can mitigate these risks.

As I explain in my book, “Confronting Climate Gridlock,” building a clean energy economy requires four mutually reinforcing pillars – efficiency, clean electricity, electrification and clean fuels.

Efficiency shrinks energy demand and costs along with the burdens on the other pillars. Clean electricity eliminates greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and enables the electrification of vehicles, heating and industry. Meanwhile, clean fuels will be needed for airplanes, ships and industrial processes that can’t easily be electrified.

The technologies targeted by Biden’s actions are well aligned with these pillars.

Insulation is crucial to energy efficiency. Solar panels provide one of the cheapest and cleanest options for electricity. Power grid components are needed to integrate more wind and solar into the energy mix.

Heat pumps, which can both heat and cool a home, are far more efficient than traditional furnaces and replace natural gas or heating oil with electricity. Electrolyzers produce hydrogen for use as a fuel or a feedstock for chemicals.

Generating demand is essential

Production is only one step. For this effort to succeed, the U.S. must also ramp up demand.

Stimulating demand spurs learning by doing, which drives down costs, spurring greater demand. A virtuous cycle of rising adoption of technologies and falling costs can arise, as it has for wind and solar powerbatteries and other technologies.

The technologies targeted by Biden differ in their readiness for this virtuous cycle to work.

Insulation is already cheap and abundantly produced domestically. What’s needed in this case are policies like building codes and incentives that can stimulate demand by encouraging more use of insulation to help make homes and buildings more energy efficient, not more capacity for production.

Solar panels are currently cheap, but the vast majority are manufactured in Asia. Even if Biden succeeds in tripling domestic manufacturing capacity, U.S. production alone will remain insufficient to satisfy the growing demand for new solar projects. Biden also put a two-year pause on the threat of new tariffs for solar imports to keep supplies flowing while U.S. production tries to ramp up, and announced support for grid-strengthening projects to boost growth of U.S. installations.

Electrolyzers face a tougher road. They’re expensive, and using them to make hydrogen from electricity and water for now costs far more than making hydrogen from natural gas – a process that produces greenhouse gas emissions. The Department of Energy aims to slash electrolyzer costs by 80% within a decade. Until it succeeds, there will be little demand for the electrolyzers that Biden hopes to see produced.

Why heat pumps are most likely to benefit

That leaves heat pumps as the technology most likely to benefit from Biden’s declaration.

Heat pumps can slash energy use, but they also cost more upfront and are unfamiliar to many contractors and consumers while technologies remain in flux.

Pairing use of the Defense Production Act with customer incentives, increased government purchasing and funding for research and development can create a virtuous cycle of rising demand, improving technologies and falling costs.

<span class="caption">Heat pumps, which can both heat and cool, are far more efficient than traditional furnaces and air conditioning.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class=
Heat pumps, which can both heat and cool, are far more efficient than traditional furnaces and air conditioning. Phyxter.ai/FlickrCC BY

Clean energy is indeed essential to mitigating the risks posed by climate change and volatile markets. Invoking the Defense Production Act can bolster supply, but the government will also have to stimulate demand and fund targeted research to spur the virtuous cycles needed to accelerate the energy transition.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Daniel CohanRice University.

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Daniel Cohan serves on the Board of Scientific Counselors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has received research funding from the Energy Foundation, the Carbon Hub, and various federal agencies.

Home prices rose by more than 50% in these 10 markets since 2017

Home prices rose by more than 50% in these 10 markets since 2017

Home prices rose by more than 50% in these 10 markets since 2017

If you own a home in the top 10 metropolitan U.S. housing markets, it may be worth a lot more than what you paid for, even if you bought it just a few years ago.

The median sales price of a home in these areas has jumped an average of 57% in the past four years, according to new data from Realtor.com.

That’s a feat that normally would have taken 10 years to achieve, Danielle Hale, the chief economist for Realtor.com, tells USA TODAY.

“If you are a somewhat recent owner, it might surprise you to learn that you could actually sell your home and make some money much sooner than you might have expected to,” Hale says.

Realtor.com looked at the 300 largest metropolitan areas and ranked them by how much their sale prices have climbed since 2017. The median time these listings stay on the market has dropped by 30 days, and these houses are now selling in 25 days.

Bidding wars: How to win a real estate bidding war

Leading the pack is Boise, Idaho, where the median price surged by 72% to $385,000 from $224,000.

The market with the highest median price was the Stockton-Lodi, California, area at $460,000, a 51% increase from January-February 2017 to the same period in 2021.

Affordability was a key factor in the markets that experienced price increases.

The largest price increases occurred near major Western cities that are tech hubs. Besides Boise, other hot metro areas with those characteristics include Spokane, Washington, and Ogden, Utah.

“Boise is attracting a lot of people from major California markets like San Francisco and San Jose,” Hale says. “The climate is similar, the prices are much more affordable, and it has lots of outdoor activities.”

The list includes cites in Western, Midwestern and Southern states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin.

A recent survey by Realtor.com found that 10% of homeowners plan to list their homes this year, and more than a quarter (26%) plan to do so within the next three years. One of the biggest drivers was turning a profit in the current market.

In the current seller’s market, where multiple bids on houses are now the norm, 29% of would-be home sellers expect to set the list price above what they think the house is worth, the survey found.

Hale says it typically takes three to five years for a homeowner to get to a breakeven point when the costs of buying make sense over renting.

The median sales price for an existing single-family home soared 18.4%, to $334,500, in March, marking a historic high, according to the National Association of Realtors. Housing inventory stood at 1.07 million units at the end of that month, down 28% from a year earlier.

Markets with the largest price gains:

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal