A resourceful group of off-the-gridders
By Gwendolyn Craig
Donna Kagiliery steered an ATV with one hand and held a watering can in the other. She revved down her drive-way on the outskirts of the town of Ohio, pausing to water lush potted plants. The tree-lined path opened as she drove by her vegetable and flower gardens, a pond, storage buildings and a brown-and-red single-story home without power lines.
Her partner, Rodney Morgan, greeted her at its front door. The two met about two decades ago on a whitewater rafting trip in the Adirondacks. Morgan, now 68, was a guide and Kagiliery, now 78, was on a friends’ trip visiting her hometown of Remsen from Florida. She would end up moving back to the area.
“Nobody could understand the two of us together,” Kagiliery said over a plate of fresh-baked muffins and cups of coffee. “We both love it here, and I got to have a new life.”
Morgan, who operates a sawmill and is the caretaker for a private club, built his home more than three decades ago on 87 acres in this southwestern corner of the Adirondack Park.
The Park’s mix of private and protected public lands can create infrastructure conundrums for remote residents. The nearest power line to Morgan’s property is about a mile in either direction and connecting would cost tens of thousands of dollars.
If Morgan had paid for the line, anyone else could tap in at no cost. With 300 acres of undeveloped land across the road, he could see himself funding a bunch of neighbors he didn’t want.
Instead, sandwiched between a pond and West Canada Creek, Morgan opted for a completely off-grid home using solar and hydro power, propane and wood.
The Explorer visited more than a half dozen full-time Adirondack region residents who live off the grid, including Morgan and Kagiliery, to learn about their power systems and what others across the state could learn from them.
Several interviewed said they wish to combat climate change. Others enjoyed emancipation from power bills and inspiration from greater solitude. All had extensive renewable energy setups successfully powering homes through frigid Adirondack winters. All installations came with a fossil fuel generator as a backup.
A few things they share in common: they string clotheslines above wood stoves. They are handy and resourceful, and have a deep appreciation for the land.
The off-gridders offer lessons on an alternative lifestyle amid the state’s goal of transitioning to more renewable energy, like investing up front for benefits later.
“Somebody has got to show that it works,” said Nancy Bernstein, a veteran but former off-gridder in Vermontville.
The state’s goals
The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act mandates New York produce 70% of its electricity from renewable sources in the next seven years, up from 29%, according to a state analysis through 2022.
The state has a long way to go, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned, noting “the ongoing concerns with affordability of electricity” as power companies increase consumers’ bills to cover upgrades.
It is unclear how many off-gridders are among us as no one seems to keep track. “People who live off the grid don’t want to be counted,” said Lisa Marshall, advocacy and organizing director of New Yorkers for Clean Power.
Suntric, a Beaver Falls company which set Morgan up with his energy system, said more than 80% of its customers live off the grid. About half of those are full-time residents. Saranac Lake-based ADK Solar, which installs solar and heat pump units, said about 40% of its solar customers live off the grid.
Marshall isn’t convinced that doing so is climate friendly. “The (state’s) climate plan is more how can we devise energy systems and energy sharing, sort of a collective approach,” she said.
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There wasn’t more than a path when Morgan first purchased his land.
“People either come down here and they really love it,” Morgan said, “or they think, ‘Oh my God, where do you live?’ Generally speaking, you’re not close to a convenience store, and you’re definitely not close to Walmart.”
While they can’t run a hair dryer (just about all the people the Explorer spoke to warned of the energy drain from such devices), Morgan and Kagiliery live like everyone else. They watch television, bake, use a computer and turn on and off the electric lights.
Morgan, who raised three children in his place, recalled when his young son tried to get out of a homework assignment. He told the teacher he wasn’t allowed a light in his room because they didn’t have power. After a talk with the teacher, Morgan suggested that his son try a better excuse.
Morgan’s home energy system has evolved. It started with a gas-powered generator but has since expanded to solar panels and a hydroelectric system in his private pond.
The pond has a small spillway that feeds water to two wheels like boat propellers, said Ray Falk, of Suntric. There’s a cone underneath the water that creates suction as it fills, drawing the water through the wheels. With a power line running under the pond to Morgan’s house, the hydro system generates about 1,000 watts converted to alternating current electricity for appliances.
Beavers chewed the cable last winter and Morgan and Kagiliery turned on their gas generator and wood stove for backup.
The couple’s home also has a pole-mounted rooftop solar array. Generated power flows through an inverter charging four lithium-ion batteries for energy needs. Appliances including their stove, hot water heater, refrigerator and dryer run on propane. Their 100-pound tank, which holds about 23 gallons, gets filled about every three weeks.
“It’s not necessarily an easy existence,” Kagiliery said. “You have to be willing to sacrifice, but when I look at this, is it really a sacrifice?”
The couple has seen “almost every animal of the Adirondacks from their dining room window,” Morgan said. Even a loon has surprised them with a visit to their pond.
Like Kagiliery, Melanie Sawyer, 55, fell in love with an Adirondack backcountry guide and adopted his off-grid life.
Sawyer, who was recently a top-four finalist on the History Channel’s survival show “Alone,” met chimney sweep and historical reenactor Brian McCormack through wilderness survival social media posts. She visited his Moriah home from New York City one day, and eventually moved in. They’re now engaged and run a wilderness survival school.
McCormack, 52, from Albany County, purchased 130 acres and built his 2,600-square-foot off-grid home in 2006. It is a modified trapper’s cabin with vaulted ceilings, a loft, a woodstove, a large overhead fan to circulate the heat and nearly triple the insulation that most building codes require.
Power comes from 10 pole-mounted solar panels, which track the sun. Energy flows to an inverter and multiple lithium-ion batteries in the basement. A propane generator automatically kicks on for a few hours to charge the batteries when needed. The home has a propane hot water tank, stove and refrigerator.
Like Morgan, McCormack found it too expensive to bring grid power about a half-mile down his road. It was “a no brainer” to live off grid, he said. He wanted to be left alone with no power bill. But McCormack is also concerned about the changing climate and hopes the state will invest more in solar incentives to help people with energy transition.
“Look at all the rain we’ve been having,” McCormack said. July storms had washed out North Country roads and broke dams. “That’s not natural.”
During a severe ice storm a few years back, McCormack and Sawyer were among the few with electricity. The town was without power for months, and some locals came to take showers at their off-grid home.
“I’m all set for the apocalypse,” McCormack said. “Our food supply is the woods, the garden, hunting, fishing, trapping, growing and foraging. This land will sustain you.”
For the right people, “it’s a wonderful life,” Sawyer said, but recommends reading reviews of energy contractors before committing.
Should something go wrong, “in the middle of winter, people can’t get up to try to help fix it,” she said. “It is expensive. If you get ripped off, that’s money down the drain.”
Tips for off-the-grid living
Learn from two renewable energy developers on planning for an off-grid home in the Adirondack Park.
Nancy Bernstein, off the grid for decades until she purchased an electric vehicle recently, lived disconnected to prove she could. She and her off-grid home were featured in the first issue of the Adirondack Explorer 25 years ago. Bernstein once organized a North Country green energy tour through the American Solar Energy Society.
Bernstein’s Vermontville neighbor John Houghton is one of the holdouts remaining off the grid. The chief of the Bloomingdale Fire Department and owner of a sled dog tour business has watched the power lines creep up to his driveway. There used to be nothing in the area when he purchased the land 37 years ago, he said, sitting inside his kitchen, a scanner burbling police calls in the background.
Houghton, 67, used to be part of Bernstein’s green energy home tour, but stopped after too many people would come by “snooping.”
“It was great in the beginning because you used to get a lot of really interested people and hopefully you could change someone into thinking, ‘yes, I’m going to go off the grid,’” he said.
Houghton and his wife raised two children off grid, mostly because he didn’t want a power bill and because he loved the property. He doesn’t really believe in climate change.
“I’m what you call a hippie redneck,” Houghton said.
His first energy system was a trailer with two alligator clips hooked to the 12-volt car battery. Now, Houghton has a renewable energy compound—a field with eight pole-mounted solar panels and an 80-foot-tall wind turbine powering a log cabin house. The panels generate about 2,500 watts and the turbine another 3,000 watts to an inverter, to a lead acid battery bank in the basement. Heat comes from a wood stove, and most of their appliances run on propane.
His son and daughter, who moved, are uninterested in off-grid living, and the hassles and hefty price tag for batteries and maintenance. Solar panel costs have come down significantly, he added.
The wind turbine is a rare sight in the Adirondacks, where the Adirondack Park Agency has jurisdiction over anything over 40-feet-tall. The agency oversees public and private development in the 6-million-acre park.
Houghton said permitting for the tower was arduous. APA staff came to the property to fly balloons and burn straw bales to collect potential visual impacts. The tower now has become a maintenance challenge. Parts get loose. He planned to rent a 100-foot lift to work on it.
About a mile away, Bernstein, 59, still operates her home primarily from solar energy, though she tied to the grid. She keeps some solar panels on the side of her house as an off-grid power circuit. New panels on her roof connect to the grid. She’s usually feeding power to National Grid rather than vice versa in the summer.
Bernstein is an energy circuit rider for the Adirondack North Country Association (ANCA) and also draws maps for the Adirondack Explorer. An energy circuit rider works with municipalities on financing and planning for energy upgrades. She said it’s funny how she “used to avoid electric use at all costs.” Now, even her car is electric. But she has never owned a television, and she still unplugs her wireless internet when not using it. It’s a “phantom load,” she said.
With ANCA, Bernstein hopes to bring a North Country voice to statewide discussions. Much of the state’s climate legislation, she said, isn’t written for the Adirondacks. Bernstein believes the state needs to insure smaller propane businesses have a “just transition.”
“The goal is to electrify almost everything,” Bernstein said. “We’re a little different here.” She connected to the grid to have the ability to charge her new wheels, a Hyundai Kona electric vehicle.
At the southern edge of the Adirondacks and amid Amish farms, Sarah Johnston, 70, and Dave Smalley, 78, have a nearly zero-emissions home. They drive an all-electric vehicle and a hybrid car.
Inspired by Bill McKibben’s book, “The End of Nature,” a 1989 warning about the threat of global warming, the couple built their 1,300-square-foot home about 21 years ago. It faces south to get the most sun. Insulation abounds, even around the foundation. Suntric helped them install solar over the years—they’re up to 15 kilowatts, or 15,000 watts, on poles and roof mounts; a 100-foot windmill generates 1 kilowatt.
They’ve upgraded their batteries from lead-acid to lithium-ion and use a gas generator for some cold days. Johnston estimated they burn five gallons of a gas and 50 gallons of propane a year. Some of the solar panels are for water heating. A pump distributes antifreeze through a coil in a big tank in the house after it heats through the solar panels outdoors. The system is connected to their radiant heat flooring. There is an on-demand propane hot water heater for backup.
They have a gas stove with burners and an oven, but also an electric oven powered by solar.
State University of New York at Cobleskill students studying renewable energy systems sometimes tour the premises. Johnston provides a PowerPoint presentation.
The electric car did worry Johnston at first. When she worked in Albany for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, the only time Johnston would have been able to charge it was at night. Johnston and Smalley arranged with a grid-tied neighbor to install a charging system next door.
Eventually they added more solar panels. They’ve also since retired. Charging now is more feasible.
Jim Visconti and wife Ginger Visconti moved to the Adirondacks and built their 700-square-foot off-grid home 22 years ago on 11 acres in town of Black Brook. They’d been living off-grid for five years already in a solar-paneled RV, traveling the United States.
After reading about climate change decades ago, the Viscontis thought “it was the right thing”, Jim Visconti said.
The Viscontis donated land to The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Lake Bog Preserve in the northern Adirondacks, the second largest peatland in New York. Ginger Visconti died in 2018.
Their home runs on a dozen solar panels generating around 4,800 watts. It holds a string of lead-acid batteries. The house, surrounded by piles of firewood and blooming flower gardens, has extra insulation and thick glass windows. There are two wood stoves, a propane hot water heater and a gasoline-powered backup generator. The dishwasher and toaster sit unused —too much of an energy drain, Visconti said.
Visconti, 80, is worried about the planet, not because of fossil fuel, but because the Earth’s human population is approaching 9 billion, causing overuse of resources.
Visconti also thinks grid-tied renewable energy systems make people get lazy. “They buy electric stoves, and they go back to their old ways. They’re still doing good for the planet, but they’re still using energy that has to be manufactured somewhere, by some means, either through fossil fuels or hydroelectric.”
John Colston, 66, a retired AOL media officer, bought his family’s multi-building, seasonal retreat on Long Lake in the late 1990s. He started powering it with a propane generator and 48 car batteries on inverters.
Now, he has a dozen 340-watt solar panels connected to 24 marine vessel batteries and uses propane for the oven, clothes dryer and hot water tank.
“The ultimate irony,” Colston said, “the propane generator went unused for so long that the starting battery was temporarily dead.”
Colston lived off-grid mostly because that was the only option, and he learned from other camp owners on the lake how to make do.
He considers himself an environmentalist and tries to take some of his off-grid living inspiration to his Maryland home via air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling. He’s looking at solar panels next.