Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt are the owners of Willow Witt Ranch, a 440-acre sustainable farming enterprise that raises organic, pasture-grown pigs; Alpine goats for milk and backpacking; chickens for meat and eggs; and a wide variety of cold-hardy vegetables. During the 27 years that they’ve been at their property, they’ve successfully lived with renewable energy—and without grid power.
HOME POWER: In addition to your home’s energy needs, you also have a goat dairy and meat operation. With potential large electrical draws such as refrigeration and water heating, did you ever consider connecting to the grid?
WILLOW-WITT: When we bought the property—27 years ago—we contacted the utility to see what the cost of bringing in grid electricity would be. We were four miles from the nearest power pole, and they quoted us a cost of more than $100,000.
HP: So how did you expect to meet your energy needs? How familiar were you with off-grid living?
WW: Suzanne had previously used solar energy at her rural home near Redway, California, from 1976 until 1983. The system powered a few lights, a radio, and a tape player.
Lanita had no experience with living off-grid or farming, although her family had farmed in Texas in the 1940s. She wished to return to a more rural life.
And that we did. In 1986, we moved from our house on 0.7 acres in Napa, California, to a 1920s farmhouse on 440 acres near Ashland, Oregon. We used kerosene lamps and had a propane cookstove and water heater. We heated the space with wood. As the old farmhouse was renovated, we put in wiring to handle either DC or AC, though we had neither at the time.
In 1987—after having been on the ranch for about a year—we decided to use Suzanne’s original PV modules from her Redway home and a battery to power a radio phone. Six years later, however, we were ready for more electricity. We built a combination greenhouse, woodshed, and chicken house, and with a south-facing roof on one end, this structure housed our first complete PV system: four solar-electric modules and four Trojan L16 batteries. We installed electric lighting in the house. We also were required by the county to install a sand filter for the septic system. Since that required a pump, we connected a generator for backup.
HP: What differences did the PV system make in your lives?
WW: We got less sleep as electricity prolonged activity into the dark of the night! (Laughs.) The greatest joy was doing laundry at home instead of at the laundromat that was a 30-minute drive away.
HP: What other RE upgrades have you made since your initial foray into solar electricity?
WW: By 1996, we had paid off the land by doing salvage logging on mistletoe-infested white fir, and selective cutting of diseased and dying trees, so we took out a new loan to put in a water storage tank and piped water from the spring box to flow through a Pelton wheel as it fell into the tank. The tank is located just above the pond, so the overflow from the tank still keeps the pond full. The microhydro generator has a permanent-magnet alternator that outputs wild AC current then is transformed to 12 volts DC and sent to our house system’s batteries. This provides a continuous trickle charge that is especially appreciated during the winter, when solar electricity production is low. We laid 4,000 feet of pipe to have ample water for our domestic use with 50 pounds of water pressure.
That year, we also upgraded our house system to twelve 51 W modules with eight Trojan L16 batteries and a more efficient inverter (from a Trace 2012 to a Trace SW2512).