Off the grid: A model for environmentalism made easy

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Alexis Zeigler, designer of Living Energy Farm, stands in front of the first finished building at the off-the-grid, zero-fossil-fuel- 
emitting community 
in the works. Photo: Christian Hommel Alexis Zeigler, designer of Living Energy Farm, stands in front of the first finished building at the off-the-grid, zero-fossil-fuel- emitting community in the works. Photo: Christian Hommel

It’s affordable, actually sustainable and certainly not the modern American lifestyle most have become accustomed to, with multiple cars per family, smart phones for everyone and streaming video on demand. The 5-year-old project called Living Energy Farm is an off-the-grid, zero-fossil-fuel-emission community in the works in Louisa County, described in two words by its creator: real sustainability.

“Opposed to the fake version,” says Alexis Zeigler, the primary man behind the design, who believes the word “sustainability” is both overused and misused. His project aims to define real sustainability by developing 127 acres of land into a self-sufficient, income-sharing community, education center and farm that employs the best of old and new technologies, while using no fossil fuels and leaving no carbon footprint. It’s an ambitious project, but for Zeigler, it’s the natural progression of a life that’s been long focused on treating the earth kindly.

Lifelong dream

The main house is a three-bedroom dwelling that’s still under construction. Photo: Christian Hommel
The main house is a three-bedroom dwelling that’s still under construction. Photo: Christian Hommel

A longtime environmentalist, activist, author and farmer, 47-year-old Zeigler grew up on a self-sufficient Georgia farm and moved to Twin Oaks, a cooperative community in Louisa County, when he was 18. In the mid-’90s, Zeigler moved to Charlottesville where he led a campaign to build bike lanes, fought the construction of a Walmart on Fifth Street, published a few books and built conventional buildings and renewable energy systems, as well as a cooperative house that runs on less than a tenth of the energy an average American household uses. He had a grander vision, though: Create a community that uses zero percent grid-tied energy. The idea for Living Energy Farm was born.

A project like Living Energy Farm is a massive undertaking, and Zeigler knew he couldn’t do it alone. Fortunately, he found ample support from like-minded volunteers, interns, friends and family who were ready to get their hands dirty and who, like him, envisioned living and working together in a self-reliant community. The group met for several years to develop a plan for the community, which is classified as a 501(d) or “quasi-nonprofit” corporation, and in 2010, they bought the land in Louisa for $218,000, with half the money raised by the planners and Zeigler taking out a mortgage for the remainder.

When the farm is completed, Zeigler says, only $100,000 more will have been invested in building the community that could support over a dozen people. This low price comes from the number of donated and refurbished materials being used to complete the project, as well as its design, which uses simple, cheap materials. In a few years, Zeigler imagines building a couple of houses on the property, but for now, he says they’ll stick with the three-bedroom house and kitchen building with a bathroom, plus an array of fields where over 25 fruits, nuts and vegetables are farmed. The aesthetic emphasizes fresh air and light and minimizes costly trim and detail.

With financial support from the nonprofit Virginia Organizing Project for educational programming, Zeigler’s ultimate goal is to introduce Americans to the truly sustainable cooperative lifestyle, and to say, “Hey, it’s not so hard. This is OK.”

Old and new

A solar parabolic cooker known as the “death ray” is used to cook many meals for the community. Photo: Christian Hommel
A solar parabolic cooker known as the “death ray” is used to cook many meals for the community. Photo: Christian Hommel

Right off Bibb Store Road in Louisa, passersby are greeted with a sign for Living Energy Farm and, upon pulling off, another one that reads No Vehicles Beyond This Point. Guests are then expected to leave their cars parked in a makeshift lot on the edge of the farm and from there, it’s about a quarter mile hike up a beaten gravel and dirt path to the kitchen, the first finished building on the property. To get around, Zeigler, his family and his crew of volunteers and interns rely heavily on their feet and bicycles, which are stationed throughout the community. For transporting materials, they have a couple of tractors, one from 1939 and one from 1961, designed to run on woodgas and biofuels.

The kitchen is separated from the house, and its roof is decorated with a grid of flat plate solar hot water collectors that are connected to the storage tank inside. “It’s like every bad pattern from the ’70s and ’80s combined,” says Zeigler about the floor which is slated with refurbished tiles in reds, blues, greens and yellows with a wood stove sitting against a wall. He plans to use a solar ammonia loop refrigeration system that has no electronics, no moving parts and can be built out of low-cost materials, but for now, there’s a mini-fridge in the corner to store his daughter’s antibiotics.

A shiny, silver metal table looks like something found in a factory. And, kind of like a factory, this space doubles as a community food processing facility where no fossil fuel is used to heat or cool the building, or to cook and preserve food. Since the kitchen stands apart, food canned in August doesn’t dump heat into the house, and in the winter, the active and passive solar features will provide warmth, and the buildings will need almost no supplemental heat, Zeigler says.

Active features include solar panels and other technologies, but passive solar is all about design and thermodynamics—windows often face south to collect more sunlight; this way, heat is easily transferred into a room. The passive design is commonly seen in greenhouses and sunrooms. For extra heat, they’ll burn wood as a last resort.

And for cool air, the farm’s irrigation system—a bundle of water pipes—runs under the kitchen and the unfinished house beside it. The water in the pipes provides a cooling that is almost free, thus achieving “air conditioning,” Zeigler says. They use surface water pumped from creeks for irrigation.

Both the kitchen and main house are super-insulated with 18-inch straw bale walls, so once they’re filled with warm or cool air, they will maintain that temperature for days.

The lighting at Living Energy Farm comes from DC-powered LED bulbs, which are powered by nickel iron batteries that are low-output and not toxic or explosive like standard lead acid batteries. The nickel iron battery in the kitchen is 80 years old, Zeigler says, and though obtaining one is a bit of an investment, he says it’s well worth the money and it will last a lifetime.

And the bathroom? Composting toilets built with a simple, two chamber design can be found down a hallway flanking the kitchen. The waste is used as fertilizer—it’s buried under fruit trees on the property.

A short walk down a dirt path from the kitchen and house leads to the other side of the property where Zeigler and his crew have set up a camping facility. This is where he and his family sleep while staying at Living Energy Farm, though they usually stay in a local house called Magnolia. Regulations prevent them from living at the farm until they receive a certificate of occupancy, which will be at the end of this year or the beginning of 2016, when the community is operating.

At this camping facility, 33-year-old Debbie Piesen—the mother of Zeigler’s children—and guests are chatting and preparing lunch while the kids play and rummage for firewood. A shack-like structure built off the tractor barn has been turned into a temporary cooking facility with fresh foods, water jugs, a table, dishes and a couple things bought from a grocery store, like coffees and sweeteners tucked away neatly.

“Nothing is over the counter for us,” Zeigler says. “Or almost nothing.”

Piesen is cooking rice in a hay box, or insulation cooker, which retains the heat and uses it to cook the grain thoroughly. It will be eaten for lunch and dinner.

On a nearby wood stove, Piesen heats carrots and oil to fry the rice. When she takes a break from the cooking, Zeigler picks it up and adds kale and some other veggies to the mixture. It smells fantastic and the two, along with their kids, guests and laborers, get in line for a communal lunch before anyone has the chance to sound the cornet—the Living Energy Farm way of signaling workers on the other side of the property that lunch is ready.

“We call this the death ray,” Zeigler says, standing next to a solar parabolic cooker. He holds a thin piece of kindling in front of the cooker’s dome to demonstrate the intensity of the cooker by showing how quickly the stick starts smoking when placed in the sun’s direct ray.

On this side of the property, there’s also a batch collector. It’s a tank inside an insulated box with a glass cover, tilted to catch the sun. Pressurized water comes in the cold side of the collector and passes out the hot side to the tap, without using any pumps or electronic control systems. Water can remain in the collector for long periods of time, and for six months out of the year, Zeigler says, it stores all the hot water they need here.

He says batch collectors are by far the most common means of water heating on the planet, but Americans don’t seem to know much about them. The pressurized water comes from the same pressurized source used for cold water, which in Zeigler’s case, is a hand pump, but he says city water would work just as well for urban dwellers.

To wash clothes, the crew is tinkering with an exercise bike hooked up to an old washing machine. Doing a load of laundry could take a few miles of spinning; four or five clotheslines are hung up to dry damp clothing.

When Zeigler, Piesen and family camp out at Living Energy Farm, they’re not quite roughing it. Their camping facility is built from scraps from the Habitat for Humanity dumpster in Charlottesville, and instead of insulating with straw bale like the kitchen and main house, this cabin has 12 inches of fiberglass wrapped around it. It has a passive solar design with its windows on the south side and is lit by DC LED lighting and nickel iron batteries, like the other side of the property. Zeigler says anyone could copy the passive solar design, but most don’t, since American culture is more apt to focus on appearance than sustainability.

Some Americans aren’t too keen on the unsightliness of decorating their properties with solar panels, either, but that hasn’t stopped the folks at Living Energy. They have solar photovoltaic, or PV, panels in four locations—two near the main house, one at the tractor barn and one small set used to run an irrigation system in a remote location near a field.

A solar shower is outside the camping facility, facing the woods, but the kids have stripped down and are splashing around in a small pool to cool off.

Community

While standing around the table, volunteers and interns chat and drink tea. Photo: Christian Hommel
While standing around the table, volunteers and interns chat and drink tea. Photo: Christian Hommel

Most parents are proud of their offspring, but Ziegler and Piesen believe their way of life is giving their children certain advantages. Both of their children, Rosseyanka, 4, and Nikita, 9 months, are named after persimmons—Zeigler’s favorite trees.

Though Zeigler and Piesen agree that Nikita is primarily focused on learning how to walk, they’ve seen Rosseyanka, who goes by Rosa, perform in ways that are different than that of most 4-year-olds: She understands grafting trees. She knows which weeds are edible. She likes bugs. She names the wild rabbits on the property like they’re her pets.

“It’s good for my kids to be exposed to [environmentalism] from a really early age, that it’s not just this kind of abstract thing,” says Piesen, who grew up in New Jersey suburbs, but moved to Twin Oaks, where she met Zeigler. “When I was a kid, it was like ‘I’m reusing toilet paper tubes for a project and I’m saving the earth!’”

She says her kids are learning early on how the plants react to different weather patterns and seasonal changes. They’re learning how the weather affects them and how it affects the land, she says, calling this one of the most challenging aspects of living off the grid. They must pay close attention to what the sun is doing at all times, since nearly all of their operations rely heavily on solar power.

The Living Energy community is flourishing; long- and short-term interns and volunteers of all ages work on farming or building almost every day. Until the main house is finished, these people camp out in their own tents when not staying at Magnolia. Tom Lever, who has volunteered at Living Energy for three years, says living in the community has been an enormous growing experience.

“It’s a great life,” says Lever. “It just feels right.”

Growing healthy foods and preserving agricultural heritage is Lever’s passion. He loves orange glow watermelon with bright, golden flesh harvested in late July or mid-August. “You eat so much you get a headache, a sugar rush,” he says. He also swoons over harvesting multicolored corn cobs with purples, yellows, blues and tans.

For him, farming teaches a sort of patience, humility and perseverance that help him to become better acquainted with the sky and the earth. His favorite part of working at Living Energy has been “honchoing,” or being in charge of some seed-growing work shifts.

Piesen is the farm’s manager, however, and seed-growing is how Living Energy Farm supports itself. The community is income-sharing and its members sell open-pollinated seeds to wholesalers for profit. They sell some produce, like sweet corn, summer squash, kale, beets, watermelon and strawberries from their gardens, too. With farming and building, Zeigler says hundreds of people have probably worked on their community thus far.

A volunteer, Talis Basham, says farming in blazing heat is the most challenging aspect, and to that, another volunteer, Baccarus Foster agrees, “The sun is brutal,” he says.

They rely on it, though, and this operation would be impossible without the sun’s strong presence.

Cooperation

Baccarus Foster stirs the community’s meal that cooks on the woodstove. Photo: Christian Hommel
Baccarus Foster stirs the community’s meal that cooks on the woodstove. Photo: Christian Hommel

In the heat of the day, the volunteers sit around a table in the shade with the rest of the community, as one member arranges freshly picked flowers in a jar and chats with Rosa, and the others crack jokes and scarf down their fried rice. One would never guess that they had met each other semi-recently, as interns and volunteers, and that they hadn’t grown up together in a similar environment.

The communal lifestyle demands cooperation between its members. “People are fascinated by the technology, but it’s really the cooperation that makes it work,” says Zeigler. “You can define that however you want, but we can’t build renewable energy with 7 billion independent renewable energy systems, nor can we build sustainable renewable independent energy systems on an industrial scale. It really has to be done on a village scale. That’s how it works.”

Zeigler has plenty of local environmentally minded friends, and he’s done years worth of research on what makes environmentalism work. He’s even written a couple books about it, including the 2013 tome Integrated Activism: Applying the Hidden Connections Between Ecology, Economics, Politics and Social Progress.

While developing the idea for Living Energy Farm, he asked his friends to send him records of at least three years of their residential energy usage. In his research, the lowest number he found came from the cooperative house he owns in Charlottesville that uses 9 percent of grid-tied energy. Other local communities like Twin Oaks came in between 10 and 40 percent, he says. But he was shocked by the numbers he received from his like-minded friends who live in private houses—their energy usage was between 120 and 150 percent above average for Americans.

Most Americans live in apartments in cities, Zeigler says, and living in a free-standing house has more economic and environmental costs. His research shows that community living cuts down on energy usage tremendously. Taking the final step from 10 percent energy usage to zero, like Zeigler is doing with Living Energy, is the tough part, but living at the 10 percent mark, he says, is actually pretty easy. It only requires living cooperatively.

“I’ve given this speech to thousands of people and most people don’t want to live cooperatively, but that’s because most people don’t care much about the environment,” Zeigler says.

Americans tend to live less cooperatively than people overseas who are confined to living in villages, and therefore, projects like Living Energy Farm are more likely to spread overseas, he says.

“If we could go into villages and set up better cookers and better hot water heaters, they’ll love that,” Zeigler says, claiming that Americans are the most dominant culture, obsessed with consumption and mostly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

“We’re annihilating the planet for the sake of our own short-term consumption and all we have to do is change our lifestyle,” he says. “But we don’t want to because our lifestyle is what makes us powerful.”

 Correction: The original version of this story misstated the depth of water pipes. Most are two to three feet below ground, and one descends 240 feet to a submersible pump at the bottom of the well.