In the early 1970s, more than one million young people stoked on hippie idealism and old copies of Mother Earth News went “back to the land,” choosing to homestead as their pioneer ancestors did in rural cabins, often without running water or electricity. Unfortunately, as author Eleanor Agnew points out in her colorful book Back From the Land (Ivan R. Dee, $27), most of them came right back to the cities and suburbia after an uncomfortable few years.

The Lees' off the grid cabin and barn in Washington"s Olympic Peninsula get power from two small solar panels. © Kathy Lee
The Lees’ cabin and barn in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula get power from two small solar panels. © Kathy Lee

Agnew lived the story herself, homesteading 62 acres in Troy, Maine, with her husband and kids. But for her and others, life without major appliances became too difficult. “It gets kind of old to be poor when you have kids,” says Pam Read Hanna, one of the book’s many vivid characters. “I”m just tired of everything being a big job,” sighed another escapee, Jim Carlson. Refugees complained that it was too cold in the winter, and the work was too hard.

But what if you could go “off the grid” and still have all your “stuff”? That’s the premise for many of today’s back-to-the-landers, who are building more comfortable retreats from civilization, complete with electricity courtesy of solar panels and windmills.

Jim and Marcy Lilly, Birch River, West Virginia

After moving to their farm in 1993, the Lilly family did without electricity for five years, even if it sometimes meant standing over the stove with a flashlight in hand. Marcy Lilly says she learned to can vegetables, use a solar cooker and a wood stove, collect rain water, wash her laundry with a hand-cranked wringer machine and hang it outside to dry, and use a human-powered radio.

“Living without electricity is actually a lot easier than people think,” says Lilly. “We had very little adjustment and never even missed TV.” But now she can have HDTV if she wants, because the family (still off the grid) gets electricity from its own solar and wind installations.

Jim and Mindy Phypers, Tucson, Arizona

The Phypers call their home in the desert “Solar Haven.” Their straw bale home is provided with electricity from a $14,000 system that includes eight Kyocera 120-watt and four Solec 150-watt solar panels, with power stored in a Concorde photovoltaic battery array. They say that sunny Tucson is very helpful in providing enough energy to run lights, stereo, TV, computer, coffee pot, microwave, vacuum and small refrigerator simultaneously (and still have reserve power for the half-horsepower pump that brings water in from the storage tank).

A 400-watt Southwest Windpower wind turbine provides backup to the solar installation, and if both the sun and wind fail (very rare in the Arizona desert) there’s a 2,800-watt Makita generator. Hot water comes from 30 British-made solar tubes on the roof. “We had always dreamed of living on a few wild acres, growing some of our own food in a big greenhouse, generating our electricity from the power of the wind and the sun, collecting and storing the rain from the skies and building a small straw bale home,” say Jim and Mindy Phypers, who were 59 and 45 respectively when they set out to realize their dream.

Lyndon and Kathy Lee, near Port Townsend, Washington

The Lees’ 15 by 18-foot one-room cabin on the Olympic Peninsula, built in 2000, is a half mile from the nearest power lines, so they were told a hookup would cost $40,000. Instead of that, after two years with kerosene lamps they built a barn and spent $10,000 on two solar panels to go on its roof, complemented with two banks of six batteries. Kathy Lee says the solar array is probably under-utilized, since they visit the cabin only on weekends, and have no heavy appliances there. The solar system is backed up with a gasoline generator, but it’s rarely needed—even in rainy Washington. “The amazing thing is that the panels keep charging the batteries even through a series of cloudy days,” Lee says. “It took a while to get set up, but now the system basically runs itself.”

Many off-the-gridders recommend equipment from a one-stop shop called Lehman’s (in Kidron, Ohio), which was founded in 1955 to meet the needs of electricity-phobic Amish farmers. “It is truly an amazing store to wander through,” says Marcy Lilly. “It is worth it to get their catalog to browse!” The store stocks candles, flashlights, carbide and hurricane lamps, solar-powered attic fans and much more.

Many future off-gridders will probably get their power from fuel cells, which convert hydrogen into electricity. General Electric, working with Plug Power, has plans to market a home-based fuel cell generator that would cost approximately $10,000, though cost issues have so far kept it off the market. Many such systems are in the experimental stage. For instance, the Desert Research Institute has created a prototype of a hybrid system that would incorporate a fuel cell with both wind turbines and a solar photovoltaic array to produce home power.