Beyond the Grid
Living off the power grid, Laura Richardson practices what she preaches. The volunteer president of New Hampshire’s Sustainable Energy Association (NHSEA), Richardson is passionate about renewable energy and sustainable living. She spends about 50 hours a week spreading the gospel about sustainability. Two years ago Laura founded NHSEA (www.nhsea.org), the New Hampshire state chapter of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (www.nesea.org). The goal of NHSEA is to provide resources to homeowners interested in renewable energy and to act as a clearinghouse for information. By e-mail and phone, Richardson personally fields endless questions: How do I get an energy audit? Where can I buy solar panels? Which appliances are most energy-efficient? She also makes referrals to installers and suppliers. To increase awareness, NHSEA holds about five workshops a year, for both homeowners and contractors to learn more about energy-efficient design. NHSEA also organizes an annual free “Green Homes Tour,” in which several dozen “green” homeowners throughout the state open their doors to the public to display what they’ve done to both conserve energy and produce it sustainably. Richardson and her husband Gil were themselves first inspired by a Green Homes tour in 1998. “I had never before thought about the impact of building materials or the cost of energy — energy was always just there. I saw that you could build with conservation and the environment in mind, and still have a beautiful home. Those homeowners gave me a gift, and now I want to give that gift to others.” Living “off the grid” means that the Richardsons must provide all the energy needs for their home themselves. A cordwood boiler heats the house and the domestic hot water — and the Richardsons cut most of the wood themselves. Since, as Laura Richardson says, “the cheapest energy is the energy that you don’t use,” they built their house very tight, to minimize air leakage. An air-to-air heat exchanger heats incoming fresh air. All the Richardson’s appliances are energy-efficient, and they use compact fluorescent light bulbs. Two arrays of photovoltaic cells (each with 10 panels) provide all the electricity, and the home itself is oriented south to maximize solar gain. “We sleep well at night,” says Laura. “We believe we’re doing good things in the world.” The Richardsons’ home represents an extreme model of low-impact living that most people would neither want nor be able to imitate. But their home serves as a showcase for what is possible, which was part of the Richardsons’ intent when they built it. After all, if countries like Austria, Sweden and Denmark can each generate more than 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources — compared to a measly 4 percent in the U.S. — why can’t we?