Everyone has heroes. Jennifer and Lance Barker are some of mine. They’ve managed to do what my family has done—live without utility electricity for decades—but without relying on nonrenewable fuels for cooking, space heating, or backup electricity. Here’s how these two postmodern pioneers meet their energy needs—using electricity solely from the sun.
Fossil-fuel generators and propane have long been “enablers” for off-gridders. Generators provide the convenience of abundant energy without having to spend a fortune up-front on renewable generation capacity, and they minimize the need to change energy use habits. But an off-grid “renewable energy” lifestyle has its contradictions when it can’t be pulled off without the fossil-fuel crutch—after all, how much independence is really gained by getting off the electricity grid only to jump on the propane, gasoline, or diesel bandwagon?
When I first met Lance and Jennifer, and heard how they had gradually developed their rural, off-grid homestead without relying on a backup generator, I was intrigued—and envious. I remembered the thousands of dollars I’d spent on generators, fuel, and repairs. I remembered the hundreds of hours I’d spent dealing with noisy, smelly, stubborn generators. And I still wonder what my renewable energy (RE) systems would look like today if I’d invested all that time and money spent on generators, fuel, and maintenance into more renewable generation capacity instead.
Lance and Jennifer’s homestead and energy systems evolved over time in a thoughtful and organic way—a reflection of their life philosophy that has been very purposefully shaped around the sun, optimizing its usefulness, and maximizing their independence from fossil fuels. Their success spans not only their fossil-fuel-free energy supply, but also their ability to grow, process, and store the majority of their food, further reducing their reliance on the nonrenewable fuels required by conventional agriculture.
Lance first encountered solar electricity and the idea of renewable energy in high school science class, and was immediately captivated by the independence it offered. So when he struck out on his own, he searched specifically for off-grid property where he could establish a self-sufficient homestead. Inspired by his father, who restored worn-out Kansas farms to native grass pasture, Lance found 40 acres of overcut, overgrazed pine forest in the southern Blue Mountains, near Canyon City in Grant County, Oregon, and put his roots down.
With only 1.7 people per square mile, Grant County is the size of Connecticut in land area, but has only 8,000 people—so it’s intensely rural. Lance picked this area for its clean land, air, and water, and for its solar potential—more than 250 days of sunshine per year. About ten families live in the Barkers’ neighborhood, and they’re evenly split between those who have punched the grid in, and those who live off grid. He watched his off-grid neighbors throw money and time at generators, and wasn’t interested in the hassle or expense of importing propane for cooking and heating either. From the start, Lance was committed to developing a system that would produce all of the homestead’s energy on site, and to living within the energy “budget” that the sun provided.