Off the Grid but Still Dependent on Fossil Fuel

 By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

It's known as the Greater World Earthship subdivision, a collection of environmentally conscience homes in Taos, N.M., whose combined carbon footprint is likely less than that of a suburban McMansion. Recently arrived Jamestown resident Ethan Timm spent a year living off the grid in one of those Earthship homes.

The experience was enlightening, refreshing and sometimes challenging. Several years later, it also has left the 37-year-old Timm asking, “What does off the grid really mean?”

Each house in the Greater World Earthship subdivision is built using natural and recycled materials — consumed products that much of society casually discards, such as glass bottles, aluminum cans and tires. These materials are reused as the thermal mass foundations and walls of each Earthship home. The homes are untethered from mass public utilities such as power, water and natural gas. They run entirely on passive solar heating as well as cooling and photovoltaic power.

“The homes have banks of batteries in a room, with solar and wind power feeding into the batteries,” Timm said.

Earthship homes capture rainwater from the roof with a potable surface, such as metal, channeled into cisterns and then gravity-fed into a filtration system. Supplements need to be added to collected rainwater used for drinking, because minerals found in groundwater are missing from rainwater.

Wastewater and sewage are drained and filtered via linear, biologically developed gray-water treatment and containment systems. Propane tanks, refilled annually, supply gas for cooking.

Showers are short and, if you want to take a bath, you only fill the tub with about 2 inches of water, Timm said. The New York City-born Timm, who has a degree in public policy from Duke University and a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, wasn’t troubled by the short showers, the room full of batteries or the design of the house that many would consider funny looking.

He was, however, bothered by the roundtrip, hour commute into “downtown” Taos for his job at an architectural firm and by the need for propane. It wasn’t that this Honda Civic got poor gas mileage or that he objected to the use of propane, but Timm did wonder how his frequent use of these energy sources played into his off-the-grid living.

“I realized I was driving an hour a day to live off the grid,” Timm said. “It became complicated. I was using more gas than if I lived downtown and walked or biked to work. Isn’t the gas system a grid? Does bringing in propane count as off the grid?”

That doesn’t mean Timm doesn’t support the idea of communities like the Greater World Earthship subdivision. Heck, one of his “heroes” is American architect Michael Reynolds, a proponent of “radically sustainable living” and the creator of Earthships.

Today, thanks in large measure to the work of Reynolds, some 750,000 U.S. households live off the grid, according to estimates. But, with the total number of U.S. households approaching 115 million, off-the-grid living obviously isn’t for everyone, nor is it practical nationwide.

Timm believes the more practical approach to lessening the climate impacts of fossil fuels involves changes in development policy and patterns, more efficient heating and cooling technologies, and increased education about and awareness of the benefits of renewable energy.

“It’s about reducing our energy demand,” he said. “We can reduce this demand with better insulating, solar gain and by addressing the trappings of modern life.”

It’s also about improving public transit, building denser living centers, improving community resilience and growing the local food web. It means ending the use of potable water to flush toilets, and better incorporating the idea of net-zero living.

In net-zero living, which is sometimes confused with off-the-grid living, you are tied into the corporate-owned power grid, but the renewable energy your home produces — typically from solar and/or wind — equals the amount of energy you take from the grid over the course of a year.

Timm and his partner, Cranston native Erin Muir, recently moved back to the Northeast after living in Portland, Ore. They were drawn to that city because of its take on urban planning, its bike friendliness and they way it embraces environmental practices. Basically, Portland exemplifies the way they want to live and work.

That way of life inspired them to start The Figure Ground Studio, which provides architecture, landscape design and creative sustainability consulting services.