Robert Appel has spent the past eighteen years working as a commercial jet pilot. But instead of living the globetrotter lifestyle many of his colleagues choose, Rob and his partner Marcia Lowry dedicate their time and earnings toward developing their off-grid ranch on the isolated sagelands of central Wyoming. These modern-day homesteaders are working to cultivate a sustainable lifestyle, relying almost exclusively on renewable energy (RE) technologies in a region dotted with oil derricks and dominated by King Coal.
Rob’s interest in solar energy had its start while he was living in Phoenix, Arizona. “I remember looking up at the sun, and thinking, ‘There has to be some way to use all that energy.’” In 1993, when the Appel-Lowrys moved to Rapid City, South Dakota, Rob dove right into his first off-grid renewable energy system—installing 24 Shell 75‑watt (W) solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) modules and a small Air-X wind turbine in the backyard.
Rob and Marcia’s move from Rapid City to a 420-acre ranch outside of Crowheart, Wyoming, wasn’t an impulsive move to a “gentleman’s ranch,” a growing trend in some parts of the West. Open Box P Ranch has been in Marcia’s family since 1918. Founded in the early 1900s, it began as Willow Creek Creamery. When Marcia’s grandparents acquired it, the land was used to raise sheep. Marcia had fond childhood memories of the ranch, and when her uncle, the previous resident, passed away, she and Rob took the opportunity to pursue a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
In the spring of 2005, Rob and Marcia officially changed their address to Crowheart and began the process of readying the century-old ranch house for renewables and plan-ning extensive gardens and the collec-tion of animals that were a part of their grand scheme for self-sufficiency. Marcia began work two miles up the road at the Crowheart Store—the local hitching post for gas, groceries, and gossip—while Rob commuted to local airports for his job as a pilot.
Because of abundant coal deposits in the state, Wyoming residents are supplied with some of the least expensive electricity in the United States, with an average residential cost per kilowatt-hour (KWH) of about $0.07. So Rob and Marcia’s goal to disconnect from the utility grid befuddled some of the locals.
But Rob and Marcia were committed to make their ranch and lifestyle self-sufficient, and not rely on the utility grid or a large, noisy, polluting backup engine generator.
“Our whole goal is to be as sustainable as possible,” Rob explains. And using renewable energy fit into their plan perfectly. Relying on the sun and wind for electricity—instead of coal-generated utility electricity—means that Rob and Marcia save almost 2 tons of coal from being burned each year, and almost 4 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a gas that contributes to climate change, from being emitted.