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Going Green


Posted on October 5


Along with their sweeping ocean view have come sweeping changes in the lives of Bill Warf, his wife, Christa McKimmy, and their 6-year-old-daughter, Rachel.

This past October, they moved from a comfortable home in East Sacramento to a cabin without electricity or running water near Ferndale in Humboldt County. Their three-room cabin, on 80 acres that they purchased in 2003, perches on a 1,300-foot-high ridge. Through their large windows, they can gaze at the Pacific Ocean, the mouth of the Eel River and Humboldt Bay.

But life often gets in the way of idyllic ocean gazing. Just getting to their cabin is a chore: Driving three miles from Ferndale on a steep, twisting stretch of road known locally as The Wildcat, they must turn onto a dirt road and travel a quarter-mile, then hike the last 150 yards to their house by foot along an often-muddy trail. Once they're home, the work doesn't stop: They have to generate their own heat and power and supply their own water. How do they do it? They warm the cabin and cook their meals with wood, finding an abundant supply on their land. Gathering wood is really a lot of work, says Warf, 50. But hey, I'm in better shape now than when I was going to Alhambra Athletic Club.

Water comes from a spring that Warf dug himself. Around Thanksgiving, an old septic tank on the property failed; they now use what Warf delicately describes as alternative waste-handling approaches that include composting. This simple system works great for us, he says, and it feels good not to waste the water used to flush.

They get hot water from a small gas water heater powered by propane gas. To refill the propane tank, Warf drives to Fortuna, about 20 minutes away. The family also generates its own electricity, using a system of spinning wind turbines and rooftop panels that absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity that then is stored in batteries.

The Warf

McKimmy family lives off the grid, going without connections to public utilities such as electricity, water and sewage. Unlike the vast majority of power-hungry Americans, they make conscious choices all day, every day, about their energy consumption. They can't afford to leave lights heedlessly burning when no one's in the room, or to throw a half-load of laundry in the washing machine. To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, it's not easy being green.

Why would anyone give up the conveniences of modern life to become a power pioneer? We wanted to slow things down and simplify, explains Warf, who left a job as a project manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District to start his own consulting business helping others live off the grid. (McKimmy, a 42-year-old attorney, hopes to open a yoga studio.) Our vision of an ideal lifestyle also involves realizing very low levels of energy and resource consumption. The downside? Everything is more work, explains Warf, and there is less time available to earn money. But they don't seem to mind. We kind of enjoy going into ‘energy conservation mode' to avoid wasting, he says.

A Growing Movement

Warf and McKimmy are on the leading edge of a going-green movement that is picking up steam here in the Sacramento region and throughout California. Alarmed by concerns over global warming and deteriorating air quality, and horrified by $60-a-barrel gasoline, more and more people are striving to cut their dependence on fossil fuels and leave a smaller footprint on the environment.

A very small number, like Warf and McKimmy, go off the grid&emdash;cutting their ties entirely to municipal utilities in order to live largely by their own wits and grit. A much larger number of people take a variety of smaller, less extreme steps to live a greener lifestyle.

Take, for instance, Michael Proulx and his wife, Susan Borowczyk. The couple lives with their two children in a two-story, 2,800-square-foot, passive-solar house near Shingle Springs in El Dorado County. Their rooftop sports three sets of solar panels that feed power into three inverters, which convert the DC power generated by the solar panels into AC power usable by most household appliances. A swimming pool draws its heat from tubes that loop through a concrete deck. Their home is a showcase for responsible energy use: The family's PG&E bills are virtually zero. (They pay just a small hookup fee to be connected to the grid.) Once you start solar, you get addicted, says Borowczyk.

In addition to retrofitting the 1980 house with a passive-solar system, the couple takes other measures, both big and small, to reduce their energy consumption and live an environmentally responsible life. They have replaced energy-sucking incandescent light bulbs with fluorescents, and their water heater sports a timer. We don't have garbage service, says Borowczyk. We recycle 95 percent of our trash.

And they don't just live the green life; they work it, too. As owners of A 2 Z Solar, they install solar systems for other homeowners. They're not in it strictly for the money; as Proulx says, I don't know any rich solar installers. Adds Borowczyk, We are rich timewise with the kids, not moneywise.

On a recent chilly day, sun shines into their children's playroom, which is filled with bright furniture and the babble of toddlers' voices. On one side of the warm room, opposite huge windows, five 12-foot-tall black metal cylinders hold water that stabilizes the room temperature. Floor tiles absorb warmth. The cozy room was a big selling point when the family moved here from smaller quarters in Carmichael.

Soon after they moved into the house, Borowczyk was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. During her recuperation, she spent much of her time in the playroom. I did my recovery here, because it is so healing, she says. Committed to raising their children to be environmentally responsible, she also found their green lifestyle energized her. It helped to know we're not destroying nature.

Government and Business Warm to the Color Green

If asked, most Americans would probably agree with Borowczyk&emdash;that they'd rather not destroy nature. But until recently, it was nearly impossible to have it both ways: to live an energy-efficient, environmentally responsible lifestyle without having to really work at it.

Now, however, in the Sacramento region it is becoming easier to have your cake and eat it, too, thanks to help from utility companies and state and local governments.

In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed for passage of a 10-year, $2.9 billion solar initiative to encourage homeowners, businesses, farmers and governments to install solar systems. Approved by the California Public Utilities Commission in January 2006, it is the largest solar investment of its kind in the country.

Realizing the cost efficiency of incorporating energy-saving technologies in homes before they're built, some electrical utilities and local governments are working hand in hand with developers to encourage the construction of energy-efficient homes.

SMUD and Roseville Electric have been on the solar bandwagon for a while. SMUD is nationally regarded as a leader in green energy, with large-scale solar arrays at Rancho Seco, windmills at Montezuma Hills in Solano County, extensive support for energy-efficient subdivisions and a generous solar rebate program.
In Yolo County, the communities of Woodland and Winters are thinking green. Woodland requires that at least 5 percent of the 4,000 homes in the new Spring Lake Community development be solar; additionally, all the homes must meet stringent energy-conservation standards.

In Winters, City Manager John Donlevy says, All new subdivisions must be at least 50 percent solar, and 100 percent plumbed for solar. For Donlevy, striving toward energy efficiency is a no-brainer. The costs of installing energy-efficient features are negligible compared to the overall costs of building a home, he says. The average person could find himself saving thousands of dollars in utility bills. Typically, he says, new solar homes give a return on the extra investment in seven to 12 years.

Making Energy, Not Just Consuming It

Premier Gardens in Sacramento is a long way from the Warf-McKimmy cabin in Humboldt County. In 2004, Kurt and Margy Gonzales moved with their three children into a 2,200-square-foot new house in this cutting-edge, 95-home subdivision. There, all the houses are Zero Energy Homes, designed to produce as much energy as they use.

At first, the Gonzaleses were skeptical about the ZEH concept. But the price of our home, per square foot, was the same as the nonsolar homes built at the same time in neighboring subdivisions, says Margy. John Ralston, vice president of sales and marketing for Premier Homes, points out that the cost of the energy and solar upgrades was built into the Premier Gardens development; homeowners in other Premier Homes developments typically pay an extra $18,000 for the option.
 
From the outside, the only clue that the Gonzales home differs from a traditional house is the roof: What look like black rectangular tiles actually are solar panels.

The rest of the home's technology is less obvious. Spectrally selective windows block the sun's heat in summer and retain indoor warmth in winter. Fluorescent light bulbs replace energy-guzzling incandescents. In the garage, a gas-powered, suitcase-sized tankless water heater provides on-demand hot water. We never run out, brags Gonzales.

The rooftop solar panels send energy to an inverter, also in the garage. If the panels generate more power than the Gonzaleses use, the power feeds back into the SMUD power grid. By state law, the Gonzales family benefits from net metering, receiving a credit on their utility bill for the extra energy they produce. Factoring in excess solar generation, our spring and fall usage is about 50 to 60 percent lower than what we had in our old home, says Gonzales. During summer and winter months, our usage is about 70 to 80 percent lower. Their gas usage is about the same.

Still, Gonzales doesn't consider herself a greenie. Rather, she's just a happy consumer. I think just about everyone we know has heard about our electricity bills&emdash;or lack thereof, she says, and their friends are keeping a lookout for these homes as they go on the market.

In addition to Premier Gardens, Ralston says, the company is offering solar as an option on the 65 houses it's building in Live Oak, north of Yuba City. He figures about 25 percent of the subdivision will be solar. The company also plans to build ZEH developments in Lincoln and Wheatland. We hope to do those entire communities as ZEH homes, he says.

In North Natomas, Treasure Homes, which is building a new infill subdivision of 32 single-family homes near Garden Highway, takes the ZEH concept even further. Sales broker Jake Allen walks around a plushly appointed model home. This is a house with a brain, he says. The ‘smart vent' brings cool air in when the temperature outside is 6 degrees lower than it is inside. High-tech roof barriers provide better insulation so that heat stays in during winter, out during summer. Solar panels, tankless water heaters and inverters are all part of the package. Of the new technology, says Jim Bayliss, president of Treasure Homes, It just works. It does its job. You go about your normal life.

Sacramento's ZEH homes have gotten plenty of national and local media attention. ABC's Good Morning America, CBS News, PBS, Newsweek and local TV stations all have given coverage to the innovative neighborhoods.

In Humboldt County, people like Warf haven't attracted much notice from the media as of yet. Still, he wouldn't mind if others decide to follow his family's example. I am not asking anyone else to do this, Warf says. But, he adds, I do think that everyone should be aware of their own consumption and should judge for themselves if their consumption is appropriate to the circumstances.

Before buying a Zero Energy Home, Gonzales hadn't given much thought to how much energy she consumed. I have never been involved in environmental issues, she says. Yet now, she says, I feel very blessed to be in our home. At the time of purchase, I did not believe how well the energy-saving features of our home would work. But as they say, ‘Seeing is believing,' and now I'm a believer!                                           

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