September 23, 1999
O Spacious Skies, With Nary a Power Pole in Sight
By FRED BERNSTEIN
ONOPAH, Ariz. -- From the highway, it is six miles to Brenda
Black's house, along a dusty road through boulders and saguaro
cactus. For the first four miles, a power line parallels the road.
But then the necklace of wooden poles and black cables -- the
reassuring accompaniment to millions of miles of American highways
-- ends. The house is still 1,000 feet away.
And yet, as a visitor discovered after pulling up next to the
Honda and the Chevy Blazer in Ms. Black's driveway, she is not
lacking for appliances. One of four television sets was on; so was
the "movie star lighting" over the bathroom sink. The kitchen
boasted not only a microwave oven, but also an electric grill.
Indeed, Ms. Black's house near Tonopah, some 60 miles west of
Phoenix, is typically American, which means it is jammed with
In Arizona, it is becoming easy for ordinary families to live
"off the grid" -- that is, without a hookup to electric lines --
and not sacrifice comfort. For $270 a month (about $1 a kilowatt
hour), Arizona Public Service will install a backyard unit
consisting of solar panels that produce enough power for most
domestic uses, a generator that kicks in automatically when there
isn't enough sun and a propane tank to fuel the generator. The
company guarantees the equipment, promising that it will to keep
power flowing around the clock.
"I've had them out here in the middle of the night," Ms. Black
A result? "It's solar power for the fast-food generation,"
said Katy Hundelt, an off-grid customer outside Sedona. "If we
didn't tell you, you'd come in the house and never know we had
solar," she said. "We have everything everyone else has."
Indeed, living off the grid, an option that was once available
only to the rich or the intrepid, is going mainstream, at least in
this sunniest corner of the country. Arizona Public Service has yet
to advertise the program. Even so, Pete Johnston, the company's
manager for technology development, said, "It's taking off."
There are now 30 families hooked up, he said, and "we're adding at
least one a month."
To be sure, solar systems have been available for decades. Dan
Reicher, the assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency
and renewable energy, said, "A surprising number of companies
make, supply and even finance solar systems," although he added
that the majority of such systems augment company-provided power.
Arizona Public Service has big hopes for its off-grid program.
"There are a lot of people moving from California to Arizona,
people with a fair amount of money," Johnston said. "They want to
build on dramatic sites. And until now, their only options were
propane generators or do-it-yourself solar."
The workers who developed the no-fuss system see themselves as
environmentalists. And in trying to limit reliance on fossil fuels,
Yet, the program may prove to have an environmental downside, as
new homes, untethered to power lines, begin turning up in some of
the state's most pristine locations. Ms. Hundelt's house occupies
just such a spot. "We've got a whole mountain for a backdrop,"
Vern Swaback, a Scottsdale architect responsible for some of the
largest suburban developments in Arizona, said that everyone there
has had the experience of discovering that a favorite mountaintop
or butte is suddenly dotted with buildings. "Too often," he said,
"people are under the illusion that what they're looking at is
preserved open space, when it's just land that people haven't
gotten around to using."
Anne Verner, an off-grid customer outside Prescott, in northern
Arizona, worries that "the open land may get chopped up."
William Riebsame, a professor at the University of Colorado who
studies land-use patterns in the West, said the '90s have seen an
explosion of home building in remote areas, where obtaining
electricity is often a challenge. In Arizona, hooking up can cost
$50,000 and more -- sometimes much more -- for each mile off the
grid. Most off-grid customers, said Herb Hayden, the program's
coordinator, are more than half a mile from the nearest power line.
"Independence from the grid, with reliable power for everything
from family entertainment centers to pool and spa pumps, would be a
further enabling force for even more rural and near-wilderness
development," Riebsame said.
Reicher, the assistant secretary of energy, disagreed, noting
that for most people, the cost of building roads and bringing in
water are even more daunting. "I don't see solar as a big factor
in where people decide to build," he said. Moreover, he noted that
state and local laws on land development were the traditional way
to control land use.
In Bisbee, a small mining town in the southeast part of the
state, a California company is turning a canyon lined with cholla,
agave, cottonwood, yucca and pinyon into a development called
Bisbee Ranch. The land, which has been described as "national park
quality," had not been developed, in part because bringing in
electricity was prohibitively expensive. That was before Arizona
Public Service made a deal with the developer to provide the
off-grid system to those who will buy the 60 40-acre plots.
The other utility -- telephone service -- ceased being a stumbling
block when cellular technology came in. (Even in cell-less areas,
radiotelephones work fine, as the reporter interviewing homeowners
for this article found out.) Wireless Internet connections will be
No wonder the developer of Bisbee Ranch, Joe Pinsonneault, said
of the off-grid system: "This seems to be the ticket to the
future. It's really the millennium system."
He may not be far off. It has been about a century since
electrification came to America, with the resulting patterns of
habitation, where even rural houses were built in proximity to the
grid. Now, the off-grid system, at least in the Sun Belt, could
result in a new development model.
The technology the off-grid customers are using isn't especially
new. Photovoltaic panels capable of powering a house (at least in
the Southwest) have been around for decades. Prices have been
dropping steadily. Assistant Secretary Reicher said that in 1980,
the cost of producing a kilowatt hour with photovoltaic cells was
about $1; now it's down to about 15 or 20 cents in some cases.
(That compares to an average cost of about 9 cents a kilowatt hour
for power from the local utility.) "It's a wonderful technology,"
he said, "with no moving parts."
Until now, a family hoping to rely on solar power had to do its
homework. The Real Goods Trading Co., a leading purveyor of
residential solar generators, markets systems similar to those
offered by Arizona Public Service. But they start at $5,000, and
$17,000 is about the lowest price for a unit that will handle
"problem loads" like a laser printer or an adjustable-speed
ceiling fan, the company says. Plus, as Real Goods warns in its
Internet catalog, its kits "require substantial time, expertise
and small parts to install on site."
It is true that the off-grid system is more expensive than a
conventional hook-up (the average residential electric bill in
Arizona is $92 a month), but it's much less expensive than bringing
in a power line. Other options -- including wind turbines and
hydrogen-powered fuel cells -- are not yet economical enough for
residential use, said Doug Livingston, the technical products
merchandise manager for Real Goods.
Generators are more affordable, but they tend to be problematic.
Ms. Verner, the off-grid customer near Prescott, made do with a
diesel generator on her family's cattle ranch for almost 20 years.
The equipment was smelly and expensive, she said, and the power
wasn't steady enough for a computer. Now, her teen-age children
have no problem doing their homework on the family's PC.
And in the old days, she said, "I had to wait till nighttime to
do wash" when there were fewer demands for power. "Now," she
added, "from about 10 till 3, I have electricity coming out of my
Arizona Public Service's off-grid customers generally do not
have air-conditioners, but they do have energy-efficient
evaporative coolers. Otherwise, normal appliances are OK. The
company recommends using mainly fluorescent lights. Ms. Black has
noticed that if she leaves the microwave on too long, the back-up
generator kicks in, consuming propane. So if she has to cook for
six minutes, she may do it in three two-minute stretches.
But that's her biggest problem with the off-grid system, which
is why Ms. Black is the envy of neighbors who haven't yet signed
up. "Some of the other people who live out here, they've just got
generators," she said. "And when the generator breaks, they've