The thing Adrienne Tryan misses the most about living off the grid is her blender.
Tryan is part of a growing trend of people who are reconsidering their relationship with energy and the electricity network used to power the globe, also known as the grid. On the grid or off the grid, sustainability is their emphasis.
Tryan and her boyfriend Adam Kidney began building their self-sustaining lifestyle in the spring of 2010. They sacrificed their computers, their appliances and the convenience of modern living.
The moment she traded in her rental house in Winona, Minn. for a camper on an empty 10-acre plot of land with no address was the moment Tryan abandoned modern life as she knew it.
Now, she must walk to the top of the steep hill behind her cabin each time she makes a phone call, saw wood for hours to heat her home with her wood stove and drive 15 minutes into town to shower at the local YMCA.
“It’s been a learning experience,” said Tryan as she placed her wool gloves and knitted hat on a pile of logs in front of her wood stove. “But that’s why you don’t get bored- you’re always learning.”
Living sustainably is a lifestyle change that many are hesitant to make. For some, there are economic reasons. For others, it is a choice.
“For some people it makes sense,” said Jeanne Franz, chemistry professor and chair of the sustainability minor at Winona State University. “People are going to change when they have to, but every last bit of energy is going to be used. We might as well be the ones to use it in the cleanest way possible.”
Franz lives a partially sustainable lifestyle, and a very consumer-conscious existence.
“Being sustainable means thinking about all the consequences of your actions,” said Franz, who thinks about the carbon footprint of all goods she buys.
According to an article in the State and Local Energy Report by Communications Director of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Rob Thormeyer, the nation’s current grid is in need of major investment.
Franz uses a solar array to power much of her needs and any extra power she produces is transferred into credits through a metering system for Xcel Energy. Those credits are put towards powering her electrical needs when her solar energy is not enough. At the end of each month, Franz is compensated for any extra energy she produces.
Xcel Energy claims to have over 100 customers contributing wind energy to their system, most of which lie in the farms of Southern Minnesota. In 2010, they installed 7,300 photovoltaic systems in small-scale homes and businesses. Currently, 12 percent of their power output comes from renewable sources through this power-purchase agreement and personal generating facilities.
Tim Gulden, founder of Winona Renewable Energy, a program that works with this grid-tied sustainable energy implementation and education, said more people are employing renewable energies through the grid because of the payback for the extra production.
“It’s mainly motivated by the return on investment,” he said. “But you need to be very efficient before even thinking about solar.”
For many residential homes, this means a quality insulation, compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs and an awareness to keep power usage to a minimum.
Gulden said a solar array takes around 10 years to pay for itself, while a business takes nearly half that amount.
“There are still quite a bit of residential people that want it despite the higher financials,” said Gulden.
This was the case for Joe and Mary Deden.
The uneven floors, run-down walls and drafty windows of their old woodland home that kept visitors shivering in the colder months were signs that the Deden’s needed a change.
“We want to get a sustainable message across,” said Mary Deden. “What a better place to do it? How can we talk about sustainability without first being an example?”
After more than two years of designing and construction, the Dedens now have a carbon-neutral home through grid-tied renewable energy and conservation.
From solar arrays to windmills, a solar thermal heating system, and a clothesline extending into the forest, the Deden’s lifestyle has drastically changed.
“We’ve gone from a bare-bones existence to a lot more comfortable one,” said Joe Deden.
“I like the lifestyle more now than I did before,” said Mary Deden.
Though the remodeling was costly, the Dedens are close to seeing returns in their investment.
“We’ve basically pre-paid our electrical bill at a fixed rate,” said Mary Deden.
But they aren’t as concerned with receiving payback as they are with seeing the impact of their decision. The Dedens are determined to set an example.
“I know we did the right thing. I really believe that it’s important to do what you can,” said Mary Deden. “Maybe the grid needs to be fixed, but the grid does not need to be replaced. If people could just create their own little energy factories, the grid could be just fine.”
“It’s that philosophical decision of ‘this is our last house, do it right once and see how it goes from there,’” said Huelskamp, science professor at WSU and the University of Minnesota and renewable energy expert for various organizations around Minnesota, including Minnesota Renewable Energy Society and Minnesota’s Energy Education Association.
Huelskamp’s off-the-grid, 18-acre organic farm and dome-shaped home is powered by wind in the summer and sunlight in the winter, and both for the occasional laundry day. He also uses biodiesel to power his car and tractor.
Huelskamp says that biodiesel is only 99.9 percent renewable, his only shortage in living entirely off renewable sources. In turn, he teaches mainly online courses and limits his driving.
Similarly, Tryan and Kidney didn’t want a grid. They were building their own, but it was not without its struggles.
After more than six months of preparing the land, they began construction on their cabin during the winter. There was no heat in the camper they lived in and the space was tight. The wood stove depended on for heat sat idle until they could afford the pipes it needed to run. Each day, Tryan would cook dinner from under the warmth of her sleeping bag.
Finally, on Dec. 8, she had heat, after she spent hours sawing up enough wood to fuel the stove.
“I’m really bad with dates,” said Tryan. “But I remember that day because it was so exciting.”
Slowly, the cabin was furnished with items from the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, windows donated by a neighbor and other recycled material.
Now their cabin has two solar panels, which power their five lights, stereo and the fan on hot summer days. The propane refrigerator is their biggest expense.
Water and power usage is minimal. Tryan hand washes her laundry in the summertime and brings the occasional load to the laundromat during the winter. Laundry is done with a hand-made soap mixture that won’t harm the soil when it’s dumped.
She picks up a tub of water, which she uses to drink and wash dishes, from the local Fleet Farm. Under the sink she keeps two paint buckets- one for composting, the other for recycling.
“It’s definitely challenging,” said Tryan. “But we just don’t want to be reliant.”
This day-to-day routine is not all that keeps them busy. The projects are endless.
“Living sustainably means thinking about the consequences of everything you do,” said Franz. “You do as much as you can do.”
The desire to become even more self-sufficient fuels idea after idea. From finishing a chicken coop, to building a solar-powered shower, constructing a greenhouse for their garden to survive the cold Minnesota winters, and even assembling an earth sheltered home.
“It’s overwhelming to have so much to do,” said Tryan. “We know what we want to do, but to organize that is challenging.”
“Now that we’ve come this far it’s gotten a lot easier,” said Kidney.
When Tryan and Kidney compare the days of their Winona rental home’s moldy walls, run down furniture and trapped-in-suburbia lifestyle, to the orange and pink sunrise and the vibrant illuminating stars for nightlights, they are reminded of why they decided to change.
“I would never go back,” said Tryan.
Though their lifestyles are very different, Franz, the Dedens, Huelskamp and Tryan all share a similar goal: to live as sustainably as possible.
“We just wish more people would take personal responsibility for their consumption,” said Mary Deden. “Our generation has just made a big mess of everything. Now [younger generations] get to clean it up. Good luck."