Keeping the lights on: An ongoing report of local power conditions
Uploaded: Tuesday, February 20, 2001 2 p.m.

Living off the grid
Proponents say it is a lifestyle choice with rewards

On Aug. 10, 1996, Margaret MacNiven wanted to celebrate her birthday.

But it was in the middle of a massive heat wave that had triggered blackouts along the entire West Coast, from Seattle to San Diego, and all the area's restaurants were closed.

So instead of dining out, she and her son turned on the air conditioning and watched a movie on their VCR.

"It was so cool," both literally and figuratively, she remembers.

The MacNivens' house is capable of such feats because they--and more than 30 other households--are living "off the grid" in Portola Heights, a ridge-and-canyon area of widely scattered homes west of Skyline Boulevard, several miles south of Page Mill Road.

Almost all the homes get all their power from solar energy and photovoltaic cells, and don't rely on PG&E, Palo Alto or any other outside source utility company for electricity.

The MacNivens moved into the area in the late 1970s. At that time, Margaret's husband, Jamis, worked as a builder in Atherton. Back then, Jamis obtained electrical power by plugging the house into his truck's oversized battery. It produced enough power to operate the few lights and radio they owned at the time.

Soon after, they purchased their first solar panels. It was a modest endeavor at first--three panels placed on their roof. Combined, the panels created 12 volts of power, enough to run the lights and radio as well as a small 12-volt blender. They went to a coin-operated laundry once a week, cleaned their floors with a carpet roller and lived a modest electrical life.

Today, Jamis MacNiven is the owner of Buck's restaurant in Woodside, world-famous as the place where venture capitalists eat while discussing their URLs, ISPs and NASDAQ numbers. Recently, the co-creator of Napster, Shawn Fanning, stopped by for a meal.

Like Napster, living off the grid puts distribution into the hands of the many, rather than the the few--but with unquestionable legality. It is estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 people are living off the grid in America today.

Until recently, another Portola Heights resident, Dick Crane, was a notable member of the off-the-grid set.

Crane is one of the country's experts on photovoltaic cells. In the 1970s he was a part of a research group that developed the most advanced silicon cell for its time.

He founded a company called Sun Power, which helped put photovoltaic cells on aircrafts for NASA. The Pathfinder Plus, one of their crafts, was powered entirely by solar energy. It climbed to an altitude of 80,000 feet, the highest any prop aircraft has ever flown. This summer, an updated version, the Helios, will take flight. Crane said it is expected to climb to 100,000 feet.

Crane's home is also powered by photovoltaic cells. He wrote a paper about it, published in 1992 by Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Like all of his papers, it was written on a computer powered by the sun.

"I was living what everyone was doing research on," Crane said.

Crane recently accepted an offer from PG&E to plug his home into the grid. About a third of the cost of living off the grid is in batteries, which capture the energy created by the panels and provide power at night or when it snows. Batteries can last from five to 10 years, but are costly to replace.

By plugging into PG&E, Crane eliminates the need for batteries because the utility acts as his backup power source. It also allows him to reallocate any excess energy back into the general grid.

Crane recently became technical director at a Stanford laboratory in the electrical engineering department. He took the post, which is not directly involved with solar energy, because "I got tired of trying to saving the world," he quipped.

He said he is skeptical that America will ever make the structural changes necessary to convert to renewable energy, even though the need is acute: "Society is not realizing the economic and social price in burning fossil fuels," he warned.

He is sympathetic to the short-term bargain that fossil fuels provide, but believes the long-term costs (in health care from smog-related illnesses, for example, or from the toll of depleting the world's natural resources) far outweigh the immediate benefits.

Another "neighbor," Bill Sorich, lives over a ridge and part way down the deep and tree-laden "Devil's Canyon," also uses solar energy. But since he doesn't get as much light as the MacNivens on their open ridge, he experiments with other forms of energy. His latest purchase, a wind generator, sits atop a thin tower to get it above the treeline.

"Things that other people take for granted are a part of our daily lives," Sorich said.

The MacNivens, however, continue doing their part for the environment and conscientiously maintaining an "energy budget." Margaret knows the energy output of every appliance in their home. It's something she enjoys doing.

"I'm an environmentalist," she said. "And, if something goes wrong, I know how to fix it."

Having a tight energy budget also means the arrival of any device is a memorable occasion. "I remember the (electric) pencil sharpener showing up," Margaret said.

"You treat yourself to appliances as time goes by," Jamis added. "You get to join the modern world at your own pace."

When the MacNivens first obtained an inverter--which converts DC battery power to AC--they had enough power for a vacuum cleaner. Margaret was pleasantly surprised to discover that "the house looked so much cleaner when you used a vacuum."

Another device instrumental to their lives is a "track rack," which guides the solar panels along the path of the sun to increase efficiency.

Today, the MacNivens have a solar-powered well, a pool that is heated by the excess summertime power, a 65-year-old gas-powered refrigerator, computers and a comfortable life. They still have no dishwasher or dryer--they wash their dishes by hand and hang up their clothes.

Over the course of 20 years, Margaret estimated they have invested around $20,000 in solar energy supplies. But "all the fuel is free," Jamis added.

In those same 20 years, the MacNivens have had three sons. Although they occasionally bugged their parents for a television or complained about the roughness of their air-dried clothes, over time living in a solar-powered house became a source of pride for the boys as well.

"I think it got cooler as they got older," Margaret said. (Most off-the-grid homes do have televisions and VCRs, however.)

"Living off the grid is a lifestyle choice as well as a power issue," Jamis said.

It's a lifestyle they are proud to be passing along to the next generation. "If PG&E offered to hook us up to the grid for free, we wouldn't bother."

-- Bill D'Agostino


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