Living off the grid
Prior to laying cable to the mainland's electrical grid, the residents of Martha's Vineyard had to be resourceful about where they got their energy. Today, many people choose to reduce their dependency on the expensive electricity provided by the cables. Some have chosen to install systems to harness energy from the sun, or from the wind. Others have purchased energy-efficient products and have become more diligent about turning down thermostats and flicking off switches. More rare are the people living entirely "off the grid" which means they aren't connected to the utility company at all. While the cost of running power to remote properties can, indeed, be daunting, many of these people choose to live off the grid simply on principle and wouldn't plug in even if they could.
Tauras Biskis with his 20-year-old solar panels. Photo by Keri McLeod
One homeowner who is "unplugged" by choice is Woody Tasch of Chappaquiddick, who lives off the grid year-round in a house originally built by Bruce Lowther. Woody is chairman and CEO of Investors' Circle, a venture capital network that focuses on sustainability, and he prefers to work at home. This means powering his computer and other electronics with solar energy. To protect them from going down in the rare instances when he runs out of juice, he uses a back-up gas generator.
He says, "We can't keep burning fossil fuels to feed our every whim and think we're going to get away with it. Maybe we can live like that for another 20 years but then what?" Woody recently bought a house in a remote region of New Mexico that is also "unplugged" where he plans to write his next book. He coined the phrase "urgent meta-sub-neo-Malthusian-post-greenhouse-environmental-justice-passion" to describe people like himself who are driven by their environmental conscience.
Another homeowner who is unplugged is Tauras Biskis, a musician living in the wilds of Chilmark. He says, "Being off the grid makes me feel closer to the earth.... instead of buying electricity from some stinky power plant." He admits to being a bit extreme, but says he enjoys the lifestyle and will stay off the grid when he builds his new house, too. With new technology he hopes to optimize the amount of energy he gets from the sun. "I've got 10-year-old solar panels now that were passed down to me. I plan to have more panels and a bigger battery array for storage so I can rely as little as possible on propane."
Though his solar panels allow him to generate the electricity that he uses, Tauras does need to buy gas from Vineyard Propane for cooking, and to supplement the solar panels when sun isn't available. On a good day, however, the solar panels generate enough electricity to charge the battery bank. An inverter converts the energy to AC power. This runs the water pump, radio, the refrigerator and lights. An ingenious German-made Bosch on-demand water heater uses the hydraulic flow from the water pump to spin a mini-turbine that sparks an igniter switch, which lights the pilot, which lights a burner. When the pump stops running, the burners stop.
He says, "Being off the grid is more complicated in some ways, but much less complicated in others. I look at how much energy I have stored in the batteries and that helps me decide what I can do at that moment. It keeps me in touch with nature." Like many who revere the Island's natural surroundings, including its natural light and remarkable advantage for stargazing, the increased usage of indoor and outdoor lights at night on the Island discourage Tauras Biskis. "It's a waste of energy. Given the chance, our eyes can adjust very well to the dark."
For the Moore family of West Tisbury, the tradition of living off the grid goes back several generations, to a time before the "grid" was an option. Many of the Moores, whose childhood memories are filled with summers on the Vineyard with no phones or electricity, have chosen to live on the Island year-round and replace their summer camps with year-round homes. For some of them, tying into power lines is still not a valid option because of both logistics and politics. Martha Moore of Middle Point is one of several siblings who cherish the lifestyle.
When Martha built her new house, she was lucky to have the solar energy expertise of her relative, Bill Bennett. She installed an array of solar panels that she can tilt up and down to stay perpendicular to the sun for maximum effect. The panels help to power everything from the refrigerator, water pump, lights, washing machine, TV, stereo, VCR, DVD, two computers and a toaster. That's with the support of a back-up generator for long periods of overcast skies. Conserving the usage of these amenities is enjoyable and a bit of a science. "What really draws the most energy is anything with heat, like coffee machines, irons, and such. And for now, we have a gas hot water heater and furnace. But, there are exciting new systems we're looking into."
While living off the grid isn't for everyone, there are things everyone can do to lessen the load on the electrical supply to the Island. These include switching electronics off when not is use, using only cold water whenever possible, turning down thermostats, and switching off lights, indoors and out. Find out about programs on the Island that can help reduce your electricity consumption including the Vineyard Lighting Challenge, on Energy Day, May 6, or visit www.vineyardenergyproject.org.
This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the US Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and advocacy. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project's advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.