This week I visited a family so concerned about the environment that it lives a radically different life than most Americans.
This family's lifestyle doesn't look much different. The family includes a wife, a husband, and a ten-year-old boy who loves to ride his bike and play in his tree house. They live in a beautiful home amid a lovely garden. Like most people in this country, this family has a washing machine and a mixer, a chest freezer and a DVD player.
The big difference between the Owens and most families is that most of their appliances run on solar or wind energy.
Affixed to the south side of their house are six solar panels, each about the size of a small coffee table. These six panels connect to batteries that store electricity. Two hours worth of sunlight can power their home for an entire day.
What happens if the weather is cloudy for a long time?
"After twelve days our supply is down to 50 percent," said Allison, the wife, who teaches at a small college. "Even on cloudy days the panels produce some electricity."
The entire system, including a second set of batteries after five years, cost about $5,000.
"We use one-twentieth the power of a normal household," said Allison.
Here's where I saw what was different about the Owens' home. The home itself is well-insulated, including fourteen inches in the attic. Six inches of dry cellulose insulate the stud-frame walls. Windows are double-paned.
Appliances are energy-efficient, usually costing more than average appliances, but using much less electricity. Their indoor toilet is the composting kind.
Solar hot water panels pump an antifreeze solution that heats water for the home and then runs through the concrete slab to heat the floor.
The Owens are not completely free of petroleum and coal. They use propane for their stove. They also use a gasoline-powered generator for electrical back-up. However, in the past year they have used the portable generator only three hours.
They own a car, a hybrid, but because they live only about a mile from work and school, so they often walk or bike.
One day at school the son had to write what he was most proud of. "That we live off the grid," he wrote, "and that I walk or bike to school." His 4-H project was on the topic of sustainability, and ways families can live more sustainably. ("Buy in bulk because it cuts down on trips to the store" was one of his suggestions.)
I had to know: "What happens if you have a month with no clouds?"
"The batteries fill up and that's that," said Allison. "We drag out the toaster and the vacuum cleaner!"
As prices for electricity and petroleum rise, and as sea ice continues to melt in the reality of global warming, the Owens prove to be an example for the way we can live well, yet leave a smaller footprint on nature.
Ray is an author who is looking at ways to live more cheaply and more sustainably. She wrote Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.