It wasn’t the widescreen television or even the water jet shower with built-in surround sound. No, Kim and Mike Paradis of Fort Kent figure they lost most of their back-to-thenland points the day the new washing machine arrived.
Despite the household appliances and entertainment systems, don’t go looking for any electrical lines leading to the Paradis home. There aren’t any.
Since the couple moved into their home in the woods outside Fort Kent nine years ago, whatever electrical power they have used they have produced themselves.
“Everyone in town feels sorry for me,” said Kim, 37. “But then I ramble off my list of amenities. I have everything everyone else has — it’s just smaller and energy-efficient.”
The only thing the Paradises don’t have is a monthly electric bill.
Instead of power supplied by Maine Public Service, the only electrical transmission carrier in northern Maine, Mike and Kim Paradis draw their power from a 1,000-watt windmill and 700 watts in solar panels.
Their house, tucked into the trees three-quarters of a mile off the road on a dirt driveway, takes full advantage of passive solar energy through south-facing windows. And when that’s not enough, a wood stove provides the heat in addition to hot water.
When it’s too hot outside to fire up the wood stove, the couple heats water through a small on-demand electric heater. Cooking in the summer months is done on a propane stove.
But the real power story is outside, where a 104-foot, 1,000-watt Bergey Wind turbine quietly spins on windy days above the couple’s kennel of 14 sled dogs.
Perched on the rooftop are the solar panels, which Mike re-positions seasonally to take full advantage of the sun’s rays.
The combined wind and solar power is carried by wires to the house and stored in a bank of 12-volt deep-cell batteries enclosed under a wooden shelf on the second floor.
The Pure Sine Wave inverter mounted on a nearby wall converts the direct current (DC) power in the batteries to home-friendly alternating current (AC).
The couple’s energy self-sufficiency is not unique.
Though no official records are kept on the number of off-grid households in Maine, the Maine Solar Energy Association estimates there are 1,000 in the state.
Power lines connecting hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses to the grid are a common sight, but even today there are places those lines don’t reach. For many people living in those areas, alternative sources of power are far less expensive than connecting to the grid, which can cost $45,000 to $70,000 per mile.
When Mike, 38, a Fort Kent native, and Kim Paradis moved into their rustic home, the nearest power line was several miles away.
In fact, that was a major selling point for Kim, who dreads the day power lines come up her road.
No turning back
Kim is quick to say they did not start out with the amount of available power they now have.
In fact, in those first years the Paradises’ power came first from an old Honda Civic they had rigged to serve as the home’s generator.
“Any time I wanted electricity, I had to go out and start that car,” Kim said. “Because we started out with no electricity, everything was hand-powered or battery-charged.”
Slowly, the couple built up their wind and solar power and storage systems to the point where they no longer had to wait for sunny and windy days to vacuum or watch television — or use the shower with remote control music, water jets and a foot massage.
“Yeah, we went from simple to pampered pretty quick,” Kim said.
Once people get into alternative energy, Kim said, there is often no turning back.
“It’s addictive,” she said. “If we wanted, we could build the system up and we could have a larger TV or a bigger refrigerator.”
For people like the Paradises who live off grid, excess power is stored in banks of deep cell batteries, and Kim said they do have to keep an eye on their consumption as well as the weather to make sure their batteries remain charged. She makes sure her system pushes out enough energy to supply the power for the widescreen television — something of a necessity for Kim, a diehard NFL fan.
“I can pretty much tell you what our solar and wind systems produce in television hours,” she said. In her case, it’s enough to keep the set humming through an afternoon and evening of Sunday football with some left over for a late movie or two.
The alternative energy addiction, Kim cautions, can be a double-edged sword when people jump into solar or wind power with unrealistic expectations.
Many people believe that they will see quick returns on their investments, Kim said. Depending on the size of the system installed, that is just not the case, she and Mike caution.
At the same time, Kim said, power coming from the sun and wind at times can be unpredictable, and there have been long periods of no wind or sun when their batteries have drained down and can’t recharge.
“There are times we don’t have power at the flick of a switch,” she said. “But for people on the grid, there are times the power goes out — it’s the same thing.”
That’s when they rely on a small generator and cut back their electricity-based activities.
“What I encourage people to do is to learn what everything in their house requires to run,” she said. “Learn to conserve by keeping computers and televisions unplugged to avoid phantom loads.”
“Phantom load” refers to electric power consumed by appliances when they are switched off or in a standby mode.
The wasted standby power of individual household electronic devices is typically very small, but the sum of all such devices within the household can be significant.
The Paradises’ neighbor, Karen Boutot, has been an advocate of conservation and alternative energy sources for years.
Like the Paradises, Boutot has an electric water pump, appliances, television and a computer.
Like the Paradises, Boutot lives miles from the nearest power lines. Instead, the row of solar panels lining the railings of her deck and a generator supply her electrical needs.
“It’s a life choice,” Boutot said of her off-grid home. “We call it voluntary simplicity.”
Boutot knows to stay away from energy-draining gizmos such as electric dryers, curling irons, microwaves and hair dryers.
“Living like this makes me more conscious of everything that is wasted in other homes,” her daughter, Grace Boutot, 17, said. “It’s almost second nature for us to read how much energy different things use.”
Karen Boutot has waited a long time to see off-grid lifestyles and alternative energy break into the mainstream culture.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s — around the time of the last big energy crisis in this country — Boutot was an extension agent for the Maine State Energy Office.
During those years, while Boutot taught energy workshops and classes, the emphasis was on conservation rather than alternative sources, which were considered too expensive, she said.
Today, she said, things are different.
“It’s not so much the technology has changed,” Boutot said, “[but] people believe in it more and it’s more accessible.”
Boutot said she’s heard many comments over the years that northern Maine lacks sufficient daylight hours to make solar power a viable option.
The reality, she said, is far from that.
“People think because we are not in the tropics, [solar] won’t work here,” Boutot said. “We have plenty of good sun.”
Mike Paradis agrees.
“For people our age solar electric panels are a really good investment,” he said. “They will take you right through your retirement.”
The savings are not immediate, but accumulate.
Mike Paradis said a complete 1.1-kilowatt off-grid solar electric package can run around $15,000. Going off grid with wind can start around $20,000.
A big part of the expense is the batteries to store the energy. They can cost as much as several hundred dollars each.
Boutot, however, has found a way around that by using deep cell batteries designed for golf carts which sell for under $100 each, though they do require more regular maintenance than those designed strictly for off-grid use.
Boutot must check and replace the distilled water in her battery bank several times a year, she said.
According to a report prepared by the Maine State Planning Office, a typical Maine home uses about 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. Mainers pay close to 16 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. This means the average household could expect to save something approaching $1,000 a year in the raw cost of electricity without figuring for other costs included in the typical electric bill.
Surge in wind and solar
Seven years ago, Mike and Kim Paradis went from living the off-grid life to helping others get started. They founded Green Earth Energy, consulting on and constructing alternative energy systems around Maine.
This past year, Mike said, Green Earth Energy has experienced a significant surge in the number of clients contracting for wind and solar installations. “There’s no better way to learn about alternative energy than living it,” Mike said. “It’s hard to recommend systems if you don’t have that experience with them.”
This summer he helped a neighbor erect an off-grid wind turbine in addition to several other solar and wind projects in the area.
For anyone thinking of installing wind or solar power, Mike recommends first having someone come for a site visit to discuss options.
“That way people can talk about their energy needs and wants and have their location assessed for what it can and can’t do,” he said.
That first step is crucial, Boutot said, and people must be informed before spending money on alternative energy for their homes.
“You have to do your homework,” Boutot said. “Talk to people who have lived off grid for a while and know your power requirements before you get into it.”
Patty Hill of Eagle Lake also runs her entire home on power generated by the sun. She hopes to add wind power to that equation very soon. Two new free-standing Skystream wind turbines were erected in August and are awaiting an inverter before going on line. For now, a generator supplements her needs.
“I’m used to planning my life around my electric consumption,” Hill said. “When the batteries run down I turn the vacuum off — it’s good to have that excuse.”
But, she said, “I don’t feel you should struggle just because you have alternative power. I have light bulbs, I take cozy, hot showers, watch television and use my computer.”
Hill, too, lives miles beyond established power lines, and when she and her husband, Dick Hill, bought the property, they did so with solar energy in mind. Dale Roy, owner of Maine Solar and Wind of Fort Kent, recently upgraded the Hills’ system with the wind turbines and said he respects those choosing to produce their own energy.
Roy, a master electrician, is certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. With that certification, Roy said, he is able to sign off on solar-electric projects, making them eligible for state-funded rebates when available.
Roy lives on the power grid, but this year he installed a wind turbine of his own, and so far, he said, “It’s working out excellent.”
For her part, Hill readily admits entering into the world of alternative power knowing little about it, as that lifestyle was more her husband’s idea.
“Dick was always the one into the whole organic and holistic lifestyle,” Hill said. “I’m kind of the yuppie-preppy person.”
When the retired couple built and moved into their rambling ranch property overlooking Eagle Lake, Hill said, she told her husband in no uncertain terms maintaining the power supply was his department.
“I did not understand it at all when we first got started,” she said.
But she is now better versed in what runs her household. “Now I can read the system’s meters better and begin to understand it,” she said.
More than watts
Regardless of how much sun is shining or wind blowing, all three off-grid families say it comes down to more than watts produced.
“It’s about conservation,” Boutot said. “If you are going to complain about fuel prices, think about what you are doing and what you are using.”
It’s up to the individual, Kim said, to do his own part.
“We look for energy-efficient appliances,” she said. “They don’t have to be made for ‘off grid.’ They just have to be energy efficient.”
Karen Boutot and Kim Paradis can point out where every watt of electricity is going in their homes, and both take steps to assure none is wasted or drawing down the battery banks.
“Even when they are turned off, televisions draw power all the time,” Boutot said. “It can draw the batteries right down.”
So the families keep televisions, computers and other appliances plugged into power strips that can be turned off when not in use.
“It’s not so much about being self-sufficient,” Kim Paradis said. “It’s more about being self-reliant.”