Off-Grid Power Proponents Produce Clean, Guerilla Energy

Indie-power rogues stick it to the utility companies

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At the end of a gravel road, in the shadow of a mountain just outside a small Northern California town, a guerrilla war is going on. It’s a war of the people, its proponents like to say, and in the vanguard is Jim Rogers, an electrician.

Although Rogers is not his real name, he is in most ways a pretty average guy. Sure, he used to make a big deal about evading taxes. But these days even his guerrilla activities are low-profile. Still, the battle lines are clear and tensions are mounting.

Rogers’ cause is clean, renewable energy, and his enemies are monopolistic utilities that prevent individuals from integrating their solar panels and wind turbines with the grid. As he sees it, the power companies’ obstructionist policies and reluctance to take up the renewable resources torch have left him and thousands of others with no choice but to act. Even if it means going underground.

Rogers’ weapons include 18 photovoltaic solar panels, a 50-foot-high wind generator, and the electrical hardware required to rig a system capable of producing nearly 2,500 watts. That’s enough electricity to power his home 95 percent of the time. When his system doesn’t quite meet his needs—say, on winter’s darkest days—he uses the grid for backup, buying power from the utility. When it’s sunny or the wind is blowing briskly off the mountain, he produces more power than he needs and shoots his excess into the network. On those days Rogers takes great pleasure in watching the meter spin backward, knowing he is surreptitiously sharing his clean energy with others.

The utilities, which don’t like this kind of subversion one bit, are retaliating in the only way they can: by cutting people off. In one case, a power company in northern Oregon threatened to disconnect the user of a large wind generator who was feeding his excess power into its network. His response: “Go ahead.” Now his whole system is off the grid.

If it seems bizarre that people resort to subterfuge in order to share clean energy that, of course, is the guerrillas’ point. Hamming it up with the rhetoric of combat is their way of highlighting the irony. But even with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Rogers is serious about the cause. “I love being responsible for the energy I use,” he says. “I’m almost obsessed with it. If we’re going to keep living on this planet, we have to shift to cleaner sources of energy.”

Some utilities provide a legal option. In Germany, Japan, Switzerland, two Canadian provinces, and 29 American states, power companies now offer “net metering” or “net billing” for people who rely on their own small-scale solar, wind, or hydro generators. These customers sell their surplus power to the utility, which simply requires a safety inspection to ensure that the system is up to code.

But winning the stamp of approval can take up to two years and miles of red tape, plus costly outlays for such items as multi-million-dollar liability insurance. After being passed from local to regional to state offices, Rogers eventually gave up on net metering for his California home.

Net-metering programs have not been a priority for utilities largely because the numbers don’t make it worthwhile. Although the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute cites solar power as the world’s second-fastest-growing energy source, growing at 10 times the rate of the oil industry, only about 180,000 off-grid systems exist in the United States and fewer in Canada. Cost is a major factor. While the price of solar cells and wind turbines has dropped by more than two-thirds since 1980, most people aren’t willing to fork out the estimated $7,000 to set up a renewable-energy system capable of sustaining a modern family’s lifestyle. Even considering environmental benefits and the promise of major savings on electricity bills, solar and wind systems tend to be perceived as an expensive luxury. Utilities can argue that low demand simply doesn’t justify committing significant resources to developing net metering.

Guerrilla setups, however, have forced power companies to sit up and take notice. Utilities cite safety concerns, but indie-power proponents point out that new inverters incorporate protections that safely synchronize a renewable-energy system with the utility grid. “It’s been proven over and over that the inverters are 100 percent fail-safe,” says Rogers. “Safety is the song [the utilities] sing all the time, but it doesn’t make any sense. I really don’t understand where the resistance comes from.”

Other renewable-energy advocates hazard a guess: The utilities fear losing control of the market. Last year, Iowa’s MidAmerican Energy Company challenged the state’s net-metering legislation, claiming that having to buy energy from individuals with small-scale generators constituted “forced purchase of electricity at a set price.” Utilities in Maine and California also challenged their state’s net-metering policies. The companies lost these battles, but their willingness to spend time and money to fight them is revealing.

If anyone has turned isolated skirmishes into war, it is Richard Perez, editor of the Oregon-based magazine Home Power. Perez coined the term “guerrilla solar” when readers began to report their illegal clean-energy systems. Now, every issue features profiles and photographs of solar insurgents in Subcomandante Marcos-style bandannas and ski masks under the gleeful heading “Rogues Gallery.”

The magazine and its website, www.homepower.com, have become a gathering place for energy outlaws. And judging by the letters that fill a folder in Perez’s office, everyone from electricians to hippies in the woods is going guerrilla. Solar arrays and wind turbines are now cheap, efficient, and reliable enough that anyone who knows something about electrical wiring can have a renewable-energy system up and running in about two hours. Perez gladly takes credit for mobilizing the guerrilla movement because he sees it as the best way to force utilities to consider alternative energy sources.

“Electricity is no longer a scarce commodity made by grinning acolytes in huge power plants,” he declares. “Electricity now can be generated on any roof that has sunshine. I’ve got news for [the utilities]: They aren’t needed anymore.”

From Shift Magazine (Sept. 1999). Subscriptions: $17.97/yr. (10 issues) from Box 29, Lewiston, NY 14092-9929.