Living Lightly on the Grid

Environmental activist Phyllida Paterson warms her hands before the corn-burning stove in Mike Tidwell's Takoma Park home. Tidwell gets the corn from a community cooperative.
Environmental activist Phyllida Paterson warms her hands before the corn-burning stove in Mike Tidwell's Takoma Park home. Tidwell gets the corn from a community cooperative. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mike Tidwell's electric meter was spinning in reverse.

He was standing outside his Takoma Park house watching the metal disk count down. "I'm selling it to Pepco right now," he said one day recently.

Tidwell, an environmental activist concerned with climate change, has outfitted his home with energy-efficient appliances, a corn-burning stove and solar panels. Now, the two-story house sometimes produces more electricity than it needs and sends the surplus to Pepco's distribution system.

Across the Washington area, homeowners alarmed about utility rates and greenhouse gases are seeking to slash their power use or produce their own energy from renewable sources. Among them, Tidwell and a handful of others have succeeded in creating homes that require only minimal energy from power plants and fossil fuels.

What they are doing -- not going off the grid, but often going without its power-- is not cheap or easy. But they want to prove it is not impossible.

"I'm not living in a cave and freezing to death," Tidwell said. "The point is, this is do-able."

It is difficult to track exactly how many homes in the area have been overhauled to reduce energy use or produce renewable energy. Utility companies said at least 19 homes in the area are able to make more energy than they use.

Interest in such projects seems to be growing, albeit from very low levels. At Chesapeake Wind & Solar, a Jessup company that installs solar panels, business has doubled every year for the past three years. The company installed more than 100 sets last year in the mid-Atlantic region.

"We just pick up the phone and answer it, or answer an e-mail, and we experience this growth," said Jeff Gilbert, chief technical officer.

Some homeowners are making changes to avoid higher utility costs: Pepco and Washington Gas have raised rates sharply, and Baltimore Gas and Electric is planning an increase in June.

But often, the goal is to combat climate change. The average American house contributes more than twice as much greenhouse gas -- pollutants that trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere -- as the average car, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tidwell said he started changing his house in 2001 after he had a "personal, spiritual, professional, emotional transformation" about global warming. Tidwell, who had been a freelance writer for publications, including The Washington Post, became an activist. His house, once an ordinary 1915 bungalow, has become perhaps the closest thing to a "zero-carbon" home in the area.


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