A Comfortable Truth
We first walked the land in late October 1997. It was raining. It was cold. We wore rubber boots and wool sweaters and still we felt the chill. Even the trees looked cold: The maples rooted in the rich Vermont soil had shed most of their leaves, and the birches looked like tall bones against the gray of the day.
The land sloped gently to the southwest, a rectangle of 40 acres. At its height lay eight acres of overgrown pasture; below that, another 30 or so of black cherry, fir, birch, maple, poplar, spruce, beech, and cedar; a few oak trees, stately and elegant. Across the valley, we could see the long, low barns of dairy farms and the patchwork of fields rimmed by stone walls and dotted with Jersey, Holstein, and Black Angus cattle.
We’d been looking for the right piece of land for more than a year, a search complicated by the paucity of our finances. We knew what we wanted: At least a dozen acres, with at least five of them cleared for gardens and animals (we didn’t yet know what sorts of animals). We’d been shown two-acre lots so choked by trees we had to walk sideways. And we’d seen pastoral, 30-acre hayfields, heartbreaking for both their beauty and our inability to afford them.
But now, for the first time, we were exploring a piece of land we could love and afford, and before I’d even turned to Penny and whispered “I love it,” I’d seen how wide her eyes had gotten, seen that she loved it too, and I knew we’d make an offer that night. Indeed, we did.
There was a catch, of course. There’s always a catch. And here it is: The driveway was, well, not exactly there. Not so daunting but for one simple fact: The driveway we’d have to create would need to cut across 1,300 feet of densely wooded right-of-way; a quarter-mile driveway. If you think about it, there are really only two types of people who have quarter-mile driveways: the wealthy, who can afford to build and maintain them, and the poor, who can afford only such hyper-rural property. We were not the wealthy.
Our quarter-mile driveway is critical to this story for this reason: Our separation from the road and the network of power lines that trace it demand a level of self-sustenance we might never have demanded of ourselves. If we’d built on the road, or even near the road, we would have connected our home to the utility grid and never looked back. As it was, after converting our life savings into 40 acres of northern Vermont field and forest, we simply couldn’t afford to bring power back to the house site, a $20,000 endeavor. So we borrowed two small solar panels and a couple of used batteries, and bought the inverter necessary to convert the solar electric DC current into common 110-volt AC household current. We installed this modest array on a sunny August afternoon; that night, for the first time since we’d moved into the drafty shell of our unfinished house, we didn’t need to light candles.
When you live off the grid, you become a worshipper of the sun on a level most people can’t appreciate. It’s not about the tan, or the simple pleasure of its warmth on your skin; it’s about the things it lets you do: run a vacuum cleaner, or a washing machine, or even, on those hot, humid August nights, a window fan. (There’s no air conditioning when you live off the grid; air conditioners drink electricity like there’s no tomorrow.) There’s an almost giddy pleasure to be had from watching photovoltaic panels soak up free electricity, and if you get close enough to charging batteries, you can hear the water inside them bubble. It sounds a little bit like laughter.
Over the years our system has slowly grown. We started with two 50-watt panels–enough, over the course of a cloudless summer’s day, to generate about half a kilowatt hour. To put that in context, it might be helpful to know that the average American family of four uses nearly 30 kilowatt hours per day. To put it into more context, a kilowatt hour in Vermont currently sells for about 14 pennies. In other words, our electricity supply, under the sort of ideal conditions that are all too rare in northern Vermont, amounted to one-sixtieth of the U.S. average–and was worth about seven cents.
We lived within the constraints of this system for nearly two years, before upgrading to a pair of 300-watt panels. Now we could make nearly three kilowatt hours per day. We celebrated by plugging in an extra table lamp and making shadow puppets on the wall until midnight. We now had three functioning electric lights. We felt drunk with power.
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