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Couple goes off grid, on to savings

By Dave Carl

WEST UNION - Four years ago, Sonny and Linda Jobe bought 70 acres of land in Doddridge County as a place to hunt and eventually retire.

As they began to develop the land, they discovered that it would cost $70,000 to extend electricity from the local power company to their property, so they began looking for other options. Their nearest neighbor lives 1 1/2 miles away, and the power lines stop there.

Today, the Jobes, who are both 52, have a 1,069-square-foot home almost totally powered by solar energy.

They are among an estimated 750,000 Americans living without the benefit of public utilities, according to Nick Rosen, author of "Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America."

Some people unplug from the grid to "go green" or to avoid the watchful eye of the government. Although the Jobes' decision to use solar energy was economically driven, they enjoy the lifestyle.

"We got solar out here primarily because we're interested in living where we're at, but we couldn't afford to have the electric put out here," Sonny said.  

"But now that we do have solar, electric could be put out here and we wouldn't connect up to it, because not only do we want to get a return on investment, but we would have an electric bill."

The Jobes don't sacrifice modern amenities and comforts.

A tour of their home reveals all the makings of a typical household. They have a telephone, Wi-Fi, LED flat-screen television, running water, heat from a powerful wood furnace and their own security system in the family dog.

For all of that, they have to live constantly aware of the power they are using.

Although Linda and Sonny are far from alone when it comes to generating 100 percent of their own electricity, living completely off the grid isn't for everyone.

Most alternative energy users augment service received from public utilities.

Bill Anderson, a project manager at Milestone Solar Consultants LLC in Falling Waters, Berkeley County, says only 3 percent of solar system sales nationwide are for off-the-grid systems. They are just not practical for most buyers.

Most buy something like a 5-kilowatt system that costs between $25,000 and $30,000. It typically includes about 20 solar panels and generates 40 percent to 60 percent of a household's annual energy usage, he said.   

The percentage depends on how much energy a family uses. If the panels are placed on a home's roof, the orientation (north facing vs. south facing) and the pitch of the roof are variables as well.

Sonny and Linda have 18 solar panels set up in their side yard next to their greenhouse. They have two more on the roof that are hooked directly to their water heater. Their 20 panels provide most of their electricity, but their home is only 1,069 square feet. The average U.S. home has 2,480 square feet, according to U.S. Census data.

The Jobes pay close attention to weather patterns, doing the vacuuming and laundry when the sun is shining. They line-dry their clothes.

"We're always energy conscious," Sonny says.  "We're always watching what the next day's weather is going to be."

Their system came with a total installation cost of $50,000 - $20,000 less than the cost of extending power lines to their land.  

The cost was substantially more than they would have paid for a system that augmented public utilities.

Because their solar panels work independently, they had to be attached to a series of batteries that store and convert the energy collected from direct current (DC) to the alternating current (AC) used by lights and appliances.  

The 24 batteries occupy a refrigerator-size space in a storage structure behind the house. The batteries have an approximate life expectancy of 12 years.  

The Jobes have yet to replace any of the batteries. When they do, they will have to replace them all at once. That purchase cost them $6,000 in 2009.

The installation and setup costs of solar power can be daunting to people considering alternative energy, but there are incentives to help make solar more attractive.

There is a federal incentive for households like the Jobes'. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 allows homeowners with Energy Star-approved solar-power systems to claim 30 percent of the cost as a tax credit in the year the system is installed.

All 50 states also offer some sort of solar or wind incentive. West Virginia offers a residential solar energy tax credit of 30 percent or up to $2,000.

West Virginia also is one of 43 states that allow "net metering," according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  

James Van Nostrand, director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and an associate professor of law at West Virginia University, explained, "If you install solar panels and your panels actually produce more energy than you're consuming, then you can sell back your energy at retail price."

This is true for other power sources besides solar. West Virginia households that produce energy have to be registered with grid operators to take advantage of net-metering.

In West Virginia the company that coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity is PJM Interconnections. PJM's list of 140 registered energy producers in the state indicates about 124 are residential.

Nostrand says net metering is not heavily promoted in West Virginia as it is in many other states, such as New Jersey, which requires 15 percent of its electricity to come from a renewable source, such as wind, water or solar.

However, the West Virginia Alternative and Renewable Energy Act, passed by the Legislature in 2009, requires the state to acquire 10 percent of its energy from alternative or renewable sources by 2015 and 25 percent by 2025.

The various incentives combined with potential savings on utility bills can result in households covering the cost of their systems within 10 years, Anderson said.

When the Jobes began preparing to live on the land they had purchased, they had no knowledge of solar power or even farming. In fact, after getting married, they lived all over the world, including Japan, but mostly in urban settings.  City life was never their dream, however.

She had always wanted to be self-sufficient, Linda said. "I don't like to have to depend on other people. I like to do my own thing."

The Jobes bought their land in 2008 and started building their home. They built it in stages, saving money and then adding on while also assembling the solar power system to support it.  When the house was finished in 2010, it was completely paid for.

Sonny worked several jobs throughout his career. He held numerous positions in the Navy, including stints as a cryptologic officer and as a chief warrant officer. After 22 years in the Navy, he joined the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the FBI.

However, the transition to rural living involved a substantial learning curve. He and his wife turned to books, blogs and YouTube videos to teach themselves everything from raising bees to wiring the batteries for their do-it-yourself solar panels.

The Jobes' setup includes two generators, one propane and one back-up gas generator, to supplement their power if the weather is bad and their panels can't receive a full charge.  

They say living so far out has taught them to have a backup for everything, but they rarely have to resort to the generators during the summer. Winter is a different story, with the solar panels producing less than half of what they produce in the summer.

"The winter has a very low sun angle," explains Sonny, "And this only gives us around four sun hours per day."

To make up for the lack of sun during the winter, the Jobes use their generator for about an hour each evening.

They also have to brush off any snow that accumulates on the panels because it would keep them from producing energy.  However, the panels are black so the sun will melt a small amount of snow.  

Living in awareness of natural resources has become part of the Jobes' lifestyle in other ways.

They produce much of their own food. They have hogs, cows, chickens and a garden.  As they harvest their vegetables, they can and store them for winter.  

Without a need to purchase much food at the store, they don't have to leave much. That is fortunate because the closest store is 40 minutes away.

The Jobes are advocates of their lifestyle even though they acknowledge that it might seem difficult to others.  

They maintain a blog, Offgridinwv.com, which has readers across the United States, Canada and even parts of Europe.  Sonny says he started it as an attempt at a "how-to" for aspiring "unpluggers."

"When we started up, it was very difficult finding information about people, houses, solar power experiences, lessons learned.  'Do I need to reinvent the wheel every time?' So, I hoped, at the time, to be able to show other people that you can do it with very little understanding of it, if you're willing to learn.

"We get the occasional visitor who thinks that we live like a troll - you know, under a bridge with no electricity. They don't really understand solar. They've lived in cities most of their life or something, and they don't realize that we pretty much have all the convenience that they have."

The Jobes do believe in moderation and don't do everything on their own.

Sonny still makes the occasional trip into town to pick up something at the store. He doesn't see that as abandoning his principles. Instead, he's practicing something he calls "self-sufficiency within practicality."

 "You can make your own candles. You can make everything that you need, but then again you spend your entire waking moments doing nothing but that," he said. "We want to actually have some enjoyment out of it." 


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