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COLUMN ONE : Unplugged and Living Off the Sun : In rural California, surge in homemade energy is fueled by improved technology and lower costs. Even big utility companies are awakening to the potential.

October 05, 1995|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARCATA, Calif. — Linda Parkinson and her family are unplugged, and that's the way they like it.

Surrounded by redwood trees and their bountiful organic garden, they live in a sunny, two-story wood house in the coastal hills of Humboldt County and have no need for a power company: They make all their electricity themselves.

With a solar panel array that tracks the sun and a bank of batteries to store energy, Parkinson, her husband, Michael Kirschner, and their two boys, 4 and 8, can produce enough wattage to power a 1990s way of life--including a personal computer, stereo and VCR.

"We started out to be self-sufficient," said Parkinson, 39, a wildlife artist who built much of the family's house herself. "Now it's part of our lifestyle. We don't even think about it anymore."

Alternative power--hailed in the 1970s as the nation's energy savior and scorned in the '80s for falling short of its promise--is quietly making a comeback in the backwoods of California.

In this environmentally conscious community 285 miles north of San Francisco, Parkinson and her family are on the frontier of energy independence. Statewide, theirs is among an estimated 20,000 households producing their own power through the steadily improving technology of photovoltaic panels, compact waterwheels and small-scale wind turbines.

Home energy enthusiasts call it living "off the grid"--the network of power plants and transmission lines that connects nearly every household in the United States--and industry analysts say the number is rising each year.

With solar power still more pricey than commercial electricity, the biggest surge in homemade energy has come in rural areas, where setting up a miniature power plant costs less than bringing in power lines.

Solar power users run the gamut from business people and retirees to architects and survivalists. Recreational vehicle owners rely on solar energy to run their refrigerators and televisions; government agencies routinely use it to power such facilities as freeway emergency phones, Forest Service lookout stations and remote military installations.

In California, the movement toward energy independence is strongest in North Coast counties such as Humboldt and Mendocino, where hippies sought refuge from urban life as part of the "back-to-the-earth" movement of the 1960s and '70s.

Once content to read by kerosene lamp and warm themselves by wood stove, many of these aging rebels have installed solar energy systems that allow them to live in modern comfort--without sacrificing their counterculture ideals.

Except for the telltale solar panels perched on a pole--and the bumper sticker proclaiming "I GET MY ELECTRICITY FROM THE SUN"--Parkinson and Kirschner's home looks like a house fed by the grid.

Indoors, the boys play downstairs, the washing machine whirs in the background and the parents make turkey sandwiches. With the quietude of passive solar, there is no hint the house runs on home-made power.

"Theoretically, if we had everything running, we could go five days without sun at all," said Parkinson, who grew up in Santa Ana. "Sometimes I leave lights on overnight on purpose because the batteries are overloaded."

David Katz, a long-haired, full-bearded former Navy engineer, escaped from the Bay Area two decades ago and moved to southern Humboldt County when land was just $300 an acre. He devised a solar power system for his home that was so envied by his neighbors that he soon had a thriving business installing similar systems for them. Now 44, he has 20 employees and ships energy components around the world.

"Almost every house on every dirt road around here has solar power," Katz said as he walked among shelves of photovoltaic panels and waterwheels at his new warehouse in Redway, about 75 miles south of Arcata. "There are a lot of people here who want to be independent from the authorities."

For most home power users, setting up a solar system is a matter of simple economics.

A few years back, Richard Perez, editor of Home Power magazine, calculated that it made economic sense to install a home energy system if a house was four miles or more from the grid; any closer than that and it was cheaper to run power lines and plug into a utility company.

But over time, the cost of alternative energy has steadily dropped and the cost of extending power lines into remote areas has soared to as much as $100,000 a mile--and up to $1 million a mile if the lines are underground. Now, Perez figures, it is cost-effective to install a home power system--at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000--if a house is as close as an eighth of a mile from the grid.

Now, Perez and other devotees look forward to the day when it will be cost-effective for city folk to install home energy systems, produce electricity for household use and sell their surplus to utility companies.

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