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THE SUN WAS OUT, AND GREG GEIS WAS MAKING ENERGY. A little meter on the wall told him how much: 12.4 amps of net gain as our friendly star blasted his solar panels. Greg tapped a button on his meter and learned that his batteries were at 85 percent capacity.
The meter is right there in the living room, next to his bulletin board. That's typical for Earthaven: The meters are centrally located, crucial to life management. If the sun hasn't been out for days and your batteries are low, you probably shouldn't watch that movie on the VCR.
Greg has more creature comforts than many of his neighbors. When you enter his residence, you might well hear Pat Matheny coming from the sound system and see Greg typing away on a desktop computer in the corner. He's not roughing it.
As we talked, the number on his meter began to go down, below 10 amps, below 5 . . . below zero.
"We're negative. We're using more power than we're getting."
The sun came out again, and the numbers improved. Greg said his batteries would probably soon be back up to 90 percent.
But when I went back the next day, they were still at 85 percent. Had Greg been profligate with electricity? He had fixed dinner for me and his friend Arjuna the night before, and by his calculation we'd used only about 30 watts of illumination over the course of 90 minutes. Something didn't quite add up.
Greg was my Earthaven guide, graciously taking me all over the place and setting up interviews. He's 56, soft-spoken, rail thin. He'd like to put on some weight, but he's a busy man who lives alone and sometimes forgets to eat. Greg came to Earthaven from the corporate world. He had saved a couple of hundred grand as an energy consultant. He wanted to live in the mountains, in the woods, among tumbling waters. "The question for me was whether I wanted to be a monk, a hermit, or wanted to do something with a broader meaning." When he first showed up at Earthaven, he had an overly ambitious plan to build a spa. That didn't fly -- too corporate. He put his money into his home, and now he's a village techie, setting up solar power systems and running the micro-hydro electrical generating station (it can put out about 1,000 watts continuously by funneling stream water into smaller and smaller pipes, creating a jet of water that turns a turbine). He can take a hot bath pretty much whenever he wants, thanks to a solar panel that heats water for a bathtub parked (rather conspicuously, the visitor might think) in his front yard, just off the main road.
He has an electric hot water heater under his sink that only holds 2.5 gallons and is usually turned off. I never saw him turn on more than a single, small halogen light bulb. His propane-powered refrigerator is not much bigger than what a college dorm room would use for beer.
"We all tend to be minimalists. We find that people tend to be happier when it's simple," he says.
He is not a big believer in ice, because of the energy penalty when the water goes through the phase change.
"That takes 144 Btu, just to cause the water to become a solid," he says.
Greg's batteries continued to hover at 85 percent -- oddly low, given the sunny days.
At about 1 the next morning, Greg looked at his meter. It should have been completely quiescent. Off. Blank. No numbers. But it was still on, showing a negative number.
He surveyed his electrical possessions and tried to figure out what could possibly be sucking energy. Finally, it occurred to him: His tenant, away several days, must have left something on.
The next morning at the crack of dawn he walked to the little rental unit a few strides from his own home, and went inside and saw the culprit: The tenant had left her computer on. He yanked the cord out of the wall. He later did a calculation: 1,800 watts down the drain.
"For no reason! There's nobody there!"
MAYBE SOMEDAY OUR ENERGY PROBLEMS WILL GO AWAY, vanquished by human ingenuity. Right now, we have an energy crisis, even though politicians and the media don't upper-case the term the way they did in the 1970s. Back then, we worried about Arab oil embargoes and long gas lines. We worried about smog. We worried that we were running out of oil. President Carter famously described his efforts to solve the Energy Crisis as "the moral equivalent of war." Turn down your thermostat in winter, he said, and put on a sweater. He even wore sweaters himself to show how it could be done.
Americans did, in fact, conserve. They made do with less electricity. They bought energy-efficient appliances. Auto companies, forced to abide by new fuel-efficiency laws, stopped making so many eight-cylinder gas guzzlers. But somewhere along the way we took a detour. The political and cultural climate changed. The word "conservation" gave way to the less loaded term "energy efficiency."
Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor of energy policy, says the government decided after the 1970s that it shouldn't tell people how to live.
"We were wanting not to characterize saving energy as having to live in the cold and the dark," she says. The emphasis was on using energy wisely, "as opposed to suffering. The whole Jimmy-Carter-wearing-a-sweater."
The Carter approach seemed to some people to be weak, timid, lacking in confidence. Americans are supposedly a muscular, energetic, independent bunch of folks, living large, always fighting with the urge to light out for the territory like Huck Finn, only not on a raft but in a sport utility vehicle. Meanwhile, in suburbia and exurbia, the newly affluent have had no compunction about expanding their homes to 4,000 square feet or 6,000 or even 8,000, with seldom-used formal living and dining rooms, overwrought guest bedrooms, auxiliary kitchens and even, perhaps, a conservatory on the off chance that someone will drop by to play the violin.
And so we wound up back where we started: worried about energy. Worried about the supply, worried about the demand. Worried about the political consequences of needing it and the environmental hazards of using it. Worried that it's killing us coming and going.
The big problem of energy supply isn't that we're in danger of suddenly running out. We've got a couple of hundred years' worth of coal in the ground, just for starters. And the Peak Oil theory collides with a long history of human ingenuity. The Pennsylvania geologist J.P. Lesley warned that the amazing production of oil in recent decades was a "temporary and vanishing phenomenon." That was in 1886. (I noticed that some older folks at Earthaven didn't buy into Peak Oil. "I think it's fear-based," Chuck Marsh says.)
The real energy dilemma is geopolitical and atmospheric. The United States imports 60 percent of its oil, much of it from places where even our friends seem to hate us.
Energy security has become a hot-button political issue. And then there's the whole issue of global warming. By burning coal, oil and gas, we are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and throwing the global climate out of whack. There aren't a lot of people, outside of the coal industry and Exxon Mobil, who think business as usual will be healthy for the planet. We need to keep that carbon in the ground and out of the air. Our long-term challenge may not be a lack of fossil fuel, but an abundance.
What if we could do with less?
Part of the problem is that we never run out of new ways to use energy. Free-market advocates point to a confounding fact about energy efficiency: It often leads to more
energy use, not less. The reason is that a technology that makes something more energy-efficient can also be used more broadly, in novel ways. Think about the amazing
advances in computer chips, which didn't simply make those bulky old mainframe computers smaller; the new microchips made possible the desktop computer, then the laptop, then the BlackBerry and all the other gadgetry that marks our lives. Someday your eyeglasses will always be online.
Energy use is calculated every year by the federal government, and from certain angles the numbers look encouraging. As we've shifted from an industrial to a service economy, we've gotten a lot more economic bang per Btu -- about 9,000 Btus per dollar of gross domestic product, compared with nearly 17,000 Btus per dollar three decades ago. But the economy has also tripled in that time, overwhelming the sizable gains in energy efficiency. Our total energy use (and carbon output) keeps going up and up and up. In 2004, we hit a national milestone: 100 quadrillion Btus.
The Department of Energy estimates that global energy use will triple by the end of this century. China wants to build 500 coal-fired electrical plants. The global population of 6.5 billion is expected to rise to at least 9 billion. At the moment, 1.6 billion people don't have electricity. They're all going to want it. In half a century, the planet is probably going to have 2 billion cars.
Finding a way to give people the energy, food, water, shelter, clothes, toys and entertainment they demand is going to be hard enough; doing it without roasting the planet is yet more daunting.
We hear all the time about alternative energy sources -- biomass, butanol, cellulosic ethanol, fuel cells, photovoltaics, wind farms, geothermal, hydroelectric, "the hydrogen economy." But even in aggregate, new energy technologies have to overcome the fact that fossil fuels, for all their faults, are rather marvelous. They're buried in the ground beneath our feet as though waiting for us to find them and use them. They pack a lot of energy into a small amount of matter. They can be easily stored and transported at normal temperatures (unlike, for example, hydrogen). New technologies have to outcompete the old ones.
There are technological optimists who say we have the know-how to solve the climate problem. They say it's a matter of political will. Many argue that the government has to find a way to factor in the long-term cost of climate change. Right now, carbon emissions are what economists call an "externality," a cost not included in the price of energy (just as health-care costs aren't factored into the price of cigarettes). One possibility would be some kind of carbon tax, or a "cap and trade" system that gives companies a financial incentive to cut emissions. The convoluted details of such schemes tend to be a bureaucrat's dream.
Al Gore has endorsed the "wedge" approach of two scientists, Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala. They argue that we need to remove 7 billion tons of carbon -- seven wedges -- from what we're currently projected to emit into the air in mid-century. They believe there are at least 15 potential wedges in their pie-shaped model. We could increase solar power 700-fold. We could stop deforestation. We could double nuclear power. We could increase wind power 80-fold to make hydrogen fuel cells for cars. Some of these ideas may be more difficult to achieve than others, but none of them requires a breakthrough in physics. These technologies exist and are already being used. And three "wedges" can come from energy efficiency and conservation: cutting electricity in homes and businesses; doubling fuel economy from 30 to 60 miles per gallon; driving 5,000 miles a year on average instead of 10,000.
One idea (and potential wedge), already in use by Norway, is burying CO2 underground. The crust of Earth is porous. "Carbon sequestration" captures CO2 at its origin in a power plant and pipes it deep into the ground, into depleted oil and natural gas reservoirs. But the scale of such an enterprise is daunting: "Just to give you an idea on a volume basis, you could be looking at Great Lakes' worth of carbon dioxide," says Scott Klara, who works on coal research for the Department of Energy.
Ethanol, already in mass production, offers a modest improvement over the carbon emissions of gasoline. But there may be better results from the next generation of ethanol, which will come not from corn kernels, but from cornstalks and other inedible forms of biomass. Still, transportation costs skyrocket as ethanol factories get larger and require biomass to be hauled from ever-greater distances. Jim McMillan, who works on biomass for DOE, asks: "Do we truck it? Do we barge it? Do we rail it? Do we do some preprocessing of it at the farm? Do we slurry pipeline it?" Cornstalks won't walk to the factory.
Wind power is booming. James A. Johnson, senior mechanical engineer with the National Wind Technology Center, says the design of wind turbines has greatly improved, and more turbines will come online in the next year than in the past 25 years combined. The problem with wind is not technological, but political, as wind farms run into the NIMBY problem: Not In My Back Yard. People living on Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard, for example, have made it clear they want to gaze upon sailboats, not big metallic contraptions.
The photovoltaic industry is thriving, nearly doubling in size every couple of years with a boost from tax rebates. But going solar is still, at the moment, much more expensive than buying electricity from your local utility. You might pay 46 cents for a kilowatt-hour of solar energy, but only 8 or 9 cents a kilowatt-hour from the power company. "The technology needs to improve. Efficiencies need to improve. And then the production scale has to increase in order to bring costs down," says Tom Surek, manager of the photovoltaic program at DOE's Natural Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The nuclear power industry boasts that it produces no greenhouse gases. But nuclear has its own set of issues, including disposal of nuclear waste, terrorism fears and the sheer cost of building nuclear plants.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently came up with a comprehensive blueprint for future action. Five years in the making, the "Climate Change Technology Program Strategic Plan" is what you'd expect from the title: a technophile's handbook. The word "conservation" pops up in passing on Page 2 of the introduction, but this is not the place you'll find advice to turn down the thermostat in winter. We can finesse the global warming problem with "the power of markets and technological innovation," the report states. Human beings are essentially nowhere to be found in the document. In the calculations of energy use, Americans are not a variable but a constant. There's an assumption, stated explicitly at the outset of the report, that there will be "a continuation of existing patterns and trends in energy use."
We won't change. That's the official word.
FOR A PLACE DEDICATED TO BEING SUSTAINABLE, Earthaven has a fundamental problem: It's not. Not even close. No one pretends otherwise. There's not enough money, not enough labor.
"There's just not enough people here," longtime member Sue Stone says.
You can't buy a sandwich at Earthaven. You can't even buy a loaf of bread. You can buy a dozen organic eggs from a little farm in the center of the village, but no orange juice. There's a trading post that doubles as an Internet cafe, but it doesn't have enough of a customer base to carry much merchandise. For a quarter you can buy a cigarette, but you have to roll it yourself.
A dentist would be nice. Greg Geis has a cracked tooth. "I haven't had my eyes checked for nine years," he told me.
Washing clothes is a dilemma. There's no working laundromat yet, and most people take their laundry down the mountain into town. They'd rather not jump in a car, but being a purist isn't an option at the moment. Tracy Kunkler, for example, briefly carpooled into Asheville on Monday mornings with another of the single moms. They would dash from one errand to another -- laundromat, grocery store, bank, hardware store, etc. -- with three boys, ages 3 to 7, crammed into the back seat of Kunkler's Honda Civic. It was chaotic and exhausting. The carpooling plan was what turned out to be non-sustainable. They now drive separately.
"I'm not going to make myself crazy on a Monday with three kids in the back seat. That's the line I draw," says Kunkler, 37. "We're not martyring ourselves."
For Earthaven to make the next leap forward, it has to solve the basic problem of feeding itself. A community garden helps, but it's not enough. That's where Gateway Farm comes in. Anywhere else, the plowed field near the entrance to Earthaven would hardly be worth a second glance. Here, it represents a tremendous change. A gamble, really.
Chris Farmer -- everyone just calls him "Farmer" -- is the appropriately named driving force behind Gateway Farm. He's 35, sunburned, muscles taut from hard labor. He grew up mostly in Bethesda and spent a couple of years at Whitman High before his family moved away. While in college, he "had a realization one day that I hadn't eaten a single thing in my life that I knew where it came from." Nine years ago, he came to Earthaven, living in an old-fashioned canvas tent for two years, sleeping on a futon, reading by candle-light. On the coldest winter nights he'd boil water, seal it in a Mason jar, wrap the jar in a towel and put it under his blanket. He'd wake up and try to take a sip from his canteen and get nothing. Solid ice.
Almost every week he thought of leaving, but stuck it out. He built himself a microhut, 10.5 feet by 10.5 feet on the inside. He looks around today and wonders: "How do you take a bunch of overeducated suburban refugees and help them train themselves to build a village in the woods?"
The key, he believes, is entrepreneurship. Building an economy. He's among those who talk of markets, economies of scale, of expanding the definition of "sustainability" to include a larger bioregion defined by the watershed of Cedar Creek.
Last year Farmer, in partnership with a young Earthaven member named Brian Love, persuaded the village council to let them clear four acres of land. It was an agonizing decision. These were people committed to protecting the environment, not ravaging it.
Farmer and Brian and a team of co-workers first built a sweat lodge, a little structure in which they sat naked among stones heated in a fire, and contemplated what they were about to do. An old Indian ritual.
Then they brought in a huge, diesel-guzzling, smoke-belching industrial tractor and ripped out trees and dug out the stumps and piled the brush along the creek. It was, as Farmer put it, "ecological brutality." He felt a scar on his soul. But he also felt honest.
Humans require food. Earthaven would never be sustainable, never be a real ecovillage, until it could feed itself. Farmer had a guiding principle: It is essential, he says, to "bring the effects of our actions within the horizon of lived experience." Translation: Someone who can't stand the idea of cleared land should give up eating vegetables. "They're not growing under tulip poplar trees."
If they can get the farm going, they might be able to create biofuel from their crops rather than buy gas and propane from mainstream sources. They could grow vegetables. Raise livestock. They've dug a pond for aquaculture (fishing, etc.).
It all takes money, labor, imagination and energy. It's ambitious. There are times when Farmer sounds as though he's been reading the Wall Street Journal.
"We're undercapitalized, and we're under-entrepreneurized," he says. "Unless we're just a bunch of hippies living in the woods."
JUST A BUNCH OF HIPPIES . . .
Yeah, you could probably make a case for that if you wanted. There's a lot going on at Earthaven that's not exactly . . . linear. Being off the grid is just one element of being an "alternative community." "It's a social experiment that's packaged up as environmental awareness-slash-conservation," Kimchi says. Traditional families are rare. Earthaven has little kids scampering around, and they go to a school on the property, but there's only a single teenager. Because teenagers find the place boring. "Teenagers just don't do well here," Marjorie Vestal says. "They want their peers, they want technology, they want sports, they want to be invisible."
Privacy is rare, romantic life transparent. One person's problems become everyone's problems. "We almost read each other's minds," Greg said at one point. If you don't work hard enough or create a bad vibe, you might be called to face the community in what is known as a Heartshare. Operating by consensus is not exactly fast and efficient. One person can block an initiative. "We can spend years discussing whether one particular word should be included in the bylaws," Greg said.
Could the rest of us live this way?
Um, no. Not unless held at gunpoint. Most of us aren't moving to Earthaven or anything like it. On the official Earthaven tour, a banker with a small farm who was taking the tour just to get tips on animal husbandry, shook his head at the thought of living by consensus with lots of other people. "That'd kill me," he said.
What the visitor realizes at Earthaven is how much energy is expended in mainstream culture just keeping other people out of our hair. There's a reason everyone on the block drives separately to the grocery store. It's a waste of energy but, arguably, a rational purchase of independence. For the most part, we don't use energy to be powerful; we use it to be alone.
And yet for all its imperfections and eccentricities, there's a lot that's right about Earthaven. There's an honesty and directness, not only in the approach to energy but in every aspect of daily life. The people here are self-aware, awake, perceptive. They work hard. They don't do things the easy way. And I never heard anyone try to hype the place. No one pretends that Another Way is an easy road to travel. They don't even argue that they represent the future of the planet.
"I don't think the future is going to be in isolated rural communities like this," Sue Stone says.
Mall culture, Chuck Marsh says, isn't going to be changed by "this little experiment that we're doing in the woods."
But in the same way that Earthaven is gradually adopting ideas from the mainstream -- pushing entrepreneurship, building an economy -- the mainstream may have no choice one day but to adopt some ideas from Earthaven. Starting with being conscious about energy.
Cities, where most of us live, are where the battle for energy efficiency has to be won. Fleeing to the woods isn't an option to begin with. There are not enough resources in the world to allow all 6.5 billion (or 8 or 9 or 10 billion) people to live in their own little Earthaven, says John Anderson, an engineer with Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colo. And because of their density and higher use of public transportation, cities can actually have a low carbon footprint per capita. "One of the least carbon-intensive places on Earth is Manhattan," Anderson says.
Individuals -- the "end users" in this whole energy drama -- can create one of those billion-ton carbon wedges. And being green doesn't necessarily mean suffering. Many of the things that save energy also improve lives. City planners are trying to design communities with less distance between where people live and work; less time stuck in traffic jams saves energy and sanity simultaneously. Green architecture places an emphasis on natural light -- a nice thing in and of itself. Greg's house at Earthaven is pleasant without any artificial lighting during the day. There's a big light out there in space, 93 million miles away, doing all the hard work.
Switching to an energy-efficient refrigerator saves money in the long run, and lots of energy. Eating local foods rather than something shipped from California or Brazil or New Zealand may be pleasant on the palate -- local often means fresher.
The federal government estimates that if you switch five high-energy light bulbs with Energy Star bulbs, you'll save $60 a year. If everyone in America did that, we'd delete from our greenhouse emissions the equivalent of what's emitted annually by 21 power plants.
Mainstream culture can be cynical about those who are self-consciously green. To be ecologically centered is to be eccentric. To tread softly on the planet is to be "crunchy." What Earthaven seeks to be, an "ecovillage," at first blush may sound a bit silly, a bit theme-parkish. But the mainstream is its own vast theme park, built around the themes of consumption, convenience and more of everything. We talk a good game about nature, even as we become more and more removed from it. We're all environmentalists these days but cannot imagine life without paper towels and a microwave.
Change is hard. We have to start somewhere.
"You pick your battles," Farmer says. "Often the perfect is the enemy of the good."
When I got home from Earthaven, the first thing I did was turn off some lights.
Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for the Magazine and can be reached at email@example.com
He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.