Green From the Ground Up
From siting to size to solar, how one activist grappled with the decisions that went into building his ecofriendly home
By Bill McKibben
(page 2 of 2)
Replete with wood culled from local forests, the open
central room (above and below) in McKibben's Vermont home is a clean,
well-lighted place for reading, exercising, entertaining,
and staying cozy during brutal Northeastern winters.
EVEN BASIC APPLIANCES REMIND YOU that politics is at least as important a driver for change as consumer choice. The Bush administration has consistently scaled back its efficiency expectations, while in Japan and Germany, manufacturers compete on how little energy they use, driving a virtuous cycle of innovation. In fact, any house like ours is primarily a model, an experiment to see what works, to let architects and contractors try new approaches. The day it will really matter is when the results of these experiments are written into building codes and industry standards. That day is coming faster in some places than in others: California's new climate law, for instance, will almost certainly force changes on developers. But change needs to come sooner, for by now it's clear that most home builders, concerned only with the initial selling price, aren't taking the steps necessary to make their houses sustainable (and cheaper to operate) in the long run.
The real proof of that failure can be seen from the window of an airplane approaching any U.S. city. Even in, say, Reno, Nevada, with 300 days of sunshine a year, how many solar panels do you see on roofs? Not very many--in fact, the pace of installations across the United States has barely caught up with the first solar boom, during the Carter administration after the OPEC oil shocks.
For me and my wife, figuring out how to power our house was one of the final decisions. Some choices were obvious--for example, solar panels that heat water for domestic use pay back their installation costs in a couple of years, even in the mountains of northern Vermont. If your roof faces south, you'd be crazy not to install some, especially since a growing number of states offer a tax credit for doing so.
Photovoltaic panels for generating electricity are another matter. They're still pretty expensive, though the cost has begun to come down steadily (driven mostly, as usual, by the Japanese and Germans, who have subsidized enough installations to force real declines in cost). We swallowed hard and took the plunge--a dozen big panels cover most of the south-facing roofline. They work fine, but they won't pay for themselves for more than a decade. (Though my dishwasher, car, and computer aren't paying for themselves either.) It's sheer pleasure to know that we're generating most of our power from the sun, pleasure that is worth the price for us. On a sunny day, the electric meter on the side of the house turns backward all afternoon.
Still, we had two questions. One, would we simply start using more electricity now that it was, in some sense, free? The answer turned out to be just the opposite. Somehow the comprehension that your power comes from something real (the sun shining above) instead of something abstract (a wire in a wall) makes you more likely to turn off the light than before. It also makes you more likely to put the wash in a basket, go outside, and hang it up on the clothesline, an $18 device that can trim your annual household power use by 5 percent and gives you a few moments to listen to the birds sing. I wish we were even more aware of how much power we use--I've seen prototypes of lovely devices that hang in, say, your kitchen and change color with the electric load, reminding you to conserve. I can't wait to get one.
The other question was even more basic: Did we want our solar house to be on or off the grid? Traditionally, most solar installations have been off-grid--that is, they didn't have a wire leading in from the road. People generated power and stored it in batteries in the basement. They were totally self-sufficient. In recent years, though, with the invention of effective "inverters" that interface between home and network, more and more Americans have gone to "grid-tied" solar or wind. That is, when their homes generate power, they serve as a small utility, pushing electrons down the line into the larger grid. At night, people take power back from the network. In essence, they use the grid as a giant storage battery.
That's the route we took, and only partly because we were too lazy to maintain a bank of batteries. More important, we liked the idea of connection--of an energy grid that works more or less the way the Internet does, with some of us feeding in and all of us taking out. When the sun shines, the juice from our roof runs our neighbor's fridge and powers his vacuum. When the sun doesn't appear, we depend on someone else. (At the moment, that someone else is most likely a big coal-fired power plant, but in the not so distant future, with the right set of government policies, there's no reason it can't be a windmill or a mini-hydro plant.)
When we're aware of these connections, we're reminded of the most important technology of all, the technology of community. The real problem with living off the grid is that it can sometimes lead to an all-too-American isolation. It's like growing such a huge garden that you don't need to get food from anyone else. There's something noble about it, I suppose, but how much more satisfying is it to go to the farmers' market and buy items you can't grow?
And in the end, how much more green. One reason my wife and I chose the town we did was because we liked the community we found there--people who work side by side to make the whole place come together. We have committees diligently studying community-scale hydro- and wind power; everyone spends a weekend every other year to run the recycling operation at the town garage. The only way we're going to get out of the blind alleys into which we've stumbled is to work together locally and nationally--to build everything from transit networks to food systems that make us less isolated individuals and more parts of the whole. A house, at its best, is not a remote castle; it's a node on a network, a leaf on a branch, a hair on a root. That's the real green future.
Bill McKibben is a frequent contributor to Sierra whose most recent article was "Energizing America" (January/February). McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, is the author of many books, including Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007), Wandering Home (Crown, 2005), and The End of Nature (Random House, 1989).