I am Alexis Zeigler, founder of a self-sufficient, off-grid intentional community/commune.
My name is Alexis Zeigler. In November of 2010 eight people and myself acquired 127 acres of land in rural Virginia in order to create an intentional community (otherwise known as commune) focused specifically on living sustainably and off-grid. Prior to this, I had had some experience building conventional off-grid houses for a number of friends and, having seen how costly, high-maintenance and error-prone these systems were (most of those friends went back on-grid after only a few years), I decided I wanted to try and find better approaches to off-grid technology.
Today our community (it's called Living Energy Farm, you can find our website here: livingenergyfarm.org) has twelve members, including children. We are currently completely energy self-sufficient on the residential level, using a setup that has been running with very low maintenance costs (both in terms of time and money) for many years.
There are two key ways in which our system differs from conventional off-grid technology. The first is that we primarily store energy in forms other than electricity, allowing us to function with much smaller solar panel rigs than are possible with conventional systems. Our solar space heating system is a good example of this. Rather than have a solar panel connected to a large battery bank and run a space heater off of that battery bank, or keep a wood stove running constantly, we heat our house during the winter with passive solar and a combination of solar thermal hot air collectors and DC blowers that are connected directly to our solar electric panels. On a sunny day the solar hot air collectors heat air, which the blowers then push under the floor so the heat can radiate up through the house. To make the most of this heat we have a heavily insulated house (our walls are around a foot thick, insulated with straw bales) that cools very slowly, allowing us to stay warm even after multiple days without enough sun to run our blowers. The entire heating system operates without any electricity needing to run through a battery or inverter, which allows us to get away with much lower battery capacity than other off-grid systems. We run many tools directly off our solar electric panels, such as a winnowing fan, grain grinder, drill press, metal-cutting lathe, belt grinder, air compressor, to name a few. We refer to the way in which our equipment runs primarily off of a solar electric panel as Daylight Drive.
The second way in which our system differs is that where we do use batteries to store electricity, we do so for things that run at lower voltages, and we use nickel iron (NiFe) batteries. Nickel iron batteries have some disadvantages in certain circumstances, but for our purposes they work incredibly well. Compared to the battery types used in more conventional off-grid systems they are incredibly robust (they can be discharged with minimal loss in their functionality; I even have one made 70 years ago that can still hold a charge pretty well) and also have much lower maintenance costs (once every month I have to add some distilled water to our batteries and once every five to ten years I will have to replace the electrolyte in them, but other than that they run without any real maintenance on our part). For lighting we use DC bulbs that can run direct off our batteries with no inverters, and for charging phones and laptops we have cigarette lighter outlets (the kind you find in a car) so we can charge our devices without the need for inverters as well. Because we have no inverters and only use batteries to power a small range of devices, we can get away with a much smaller and (most importantly!) cheaper battery bank than would be possible with a conventional off-grid setup.
Part of why our system has worked so well for us is because of both a willingness to adjust our lifestyles to the amount of energy that we can use, and because of cooperative use. Using our system we have access to many of the comforts of a modern American home (eg. I can take a hot shower or surf the internet whenever I want, and our lights have never gone out in all the years we have been here) but we still need to pay attention to our energy use. For example, when we go through a long spell of cloudy weather we cannot leave the sink running all day or run all of our shop tools. We actually find this to be advantage however, as it means the system incentivizes us to live and use electricity in a more deliberate and conservationist way. Conventional energy systems on the other hand incentivize people to not be mindful of the amount of electricity they use.
Cooperative use means that we have technology scaled for a small village or community rather than an individual home. While our systems would likely be prohibitively expensive in terms of per capita cost for many individual families throughout the world (though they are far, far cheaper both in terms of initial investment costs and ongoing maintenance costs!), the per capita cost becomes much more affordable when distributed among a small community or village. Cooperative use also results in a more effective energy system, in the sense that it is less resource-intensive to heat one large building that houses three families than it is to heat three small individual homes. Because we are an intentional community, cooperative use for us means that our systems support several different families and individuals, but it could just as easily mean supporting the same number of cohabitating friends, one multigenerational family household, or several single generational families. The per capita effectiveness is a result of the number of people sharing the system and not how many of the people are or are not related.
We also grow most of our own food. Out of our 127 acres we farm around five acres, growing both staple crops for feeding the community as well as seeds, which we sell for income. The farm is USDA certified organic and we are currently experimenting with several different farming techniques that we hope will be more sustainable than modern, commercial organic agriculture. Some of these include chemical-free no-till farming, and grafting commercial fruit tree varieties onto rootstock that is growing natively.
There are some areas in which we are still trying to improve our energy systems. The first is our cooking system, which currently involves cooking on wood-fired rocket stoves. We are experimenting with biogas and Daylight Drive electric hotplates. Another area is our agricultural technology. We currently still burn fossil fuels to run our tractors, though we are experimenting with running one on pine pitch (turpentine).
We also very recently have returned from a trip to Arizona where we installed several dozen of our off-grid DC-powered nickel-iron lighting kits for families in the Navajo and Hopi nations and trained several people in the installation and maintenance of our systems. Many Navajo and Hopi families have had more conventional off-grid technology (eg. using AC power and lead-acid batteries) installed in the past which have since stopped working. We are confident that our lighting systems will prove to be as reliable and long-lasting for these families as they have been for us.
If you want to know more about our community, you can visit our website at livingenergyfarm.org.
Proof this is me: https://imgur.com/gallery/hKFdQbK
You can watch a video tour of our electrical systems here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5Wk7inoIxI.
You can read more about the nickel-iron batteries that we use here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/bats3.pdf
You can find more technical information about our systems (as well as a primer on electrical systems more broadly) here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/electric.pdf
And finally you can read about our recent trip to the Navajo and Hopi nations to install some of our off-grid solar lighting systems in our latest newsletter here: http://livingenergyfarm.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/2020febmarch.pdf
Ask me anything!