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Challenges no barrier for Anchorage 'off-grid' homebuilders

Suzanna Caldwell
The Lowe's vertical-axis wind turbine is quieter than a traditional wind turbine and is better suited to residential applications. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
The inverter, at right, is a critical component of a renewable energy system, taking direct-current power from the solar array and wind turbine and converting it into alternating current, which goes to the wall outlets inside the home. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Batteries, powered by the solar array, wind turbine, and in times of low wind and cloudy skies, a backup natural-gas generator. The Lowes can operate their home for a day and a half on the batteries alone. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Monitoring systems help the Lowes control the sources of power and see how much power the home uses at any time. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A system built into the breaker box lets Dan Lowe monitor his home energy use at anytime, from anywhere, giving him a breakdown by appliance. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Part of building an off-grid home is making it as energy-efficent as possible. Here, heat pipes lead to efficient in-floor heating, and an oversize water tank minimizes the time the well pump is operating. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
The Lowe's vertical-axis wind turbine is quieter than a traditional wind turbine and is better suited to residential applications. Dan and Fulvia Lowe built their energy-efficent Anchorage home with wind and solar power, and are not connected to the Chugach Electric grid. Backup power is provided by batteries and a natural-gas generator. Oct 23, 2013
Loren Holmes photo

When it comes to building their dream house, Dan and Fulvia Lowe will tell you it comes down to circumstance.

The couple's 2,000-square foot, two-bedroom, 1.5-bath home is warm and inviting. The European-influenced design means there are high, deeply inset windows and lots of open space. There are cool colors and clean lines that contain sleek, modern appliances. The lighting is kept at modest, but romantic, levels.

And that lighting level might be the giveaway. The Lowes' dream house is Anchorage's first electrical off-grid residence built to municipal code. Instead of connecting in to the local electric utility, the Lowes instead turned to other methods -- mostly renewables including solar and wind -- to heat and power their Hillside home. 

Jack Hébert, director and CEO of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center, said off-grid homes aren't uncommon in Alaska. In Fairbanks, where the research center is based, and rural Alaska, many live off-the-grid out of necessity, cost savings or sheer independence. For some, it's a mix of all three.

Hébert said he didn't know of any other off-grid homes in Anchorage, and noted that what the Lowes are doing deserves attention. Not everyone can go as far off the grid as they have, but there are lessons in how they consume energy that other homeowners should consider.

“What they're doing is a novelty, it may not be something practical that becomes common use,” he said. “But I think some of the things they are doing are something all of us should be interested in.”

Getting there has not been an easy process. For the couple -- both in their early 40s -- it took years of research, dealing with complicated permitting and design, as well as a little bit of luck to finally move into the house in autumn of 2012.

“It all lined up by the skinny hair of our butts,” Dan Lowe said. “But we stayed focused.”

Getting there

Everything about building the Lowes' home was a matter of happenstance. In 2009, the couple purchased the 2-acre lot the house sits on high in Anchorage's hillside, tucked far back into Paradise Valley off Goldenview Drive.

The lot is gorgeous, located at the top of a bluff that overlooks muddy Turnagain Arm, three mountain ranges and the twinkling lights of the Anchorage Bowl. The only problem? The lot was deemed “unbuildable” because of the technical and municipal code challenges it posed. Despite the total acreage, most of the property is on a steep slope covered by thick willow, spruce and birch trees.

But the Lowes were undaunted. They cleared as much of the parcel as they could, creating a pad large enough to place a yurt on.

For three years, the couple lived off-grid in the yurt, using only solar panels and a back-up generator, all the while keeping detailed notes on how they were making power. The idea was two-fold: They not only wanted to live comfortably in the yurt, but also to collect data on how renewables could work on the property. 

All of those would be important when the Lowes went to build their actual house. The couple talked about how at every turn, they found themselves having to explain their vision and prove the idea had merit. They ended up presenting charts and data on the feasibility of the project to the municipality, Chugach Electric and even the banks that considered financing the project. Dan said only a few banks will finance owner-builder projects and even fewer will consider projects deemed “off grid.”

“It was becoming this major, challenging task," to just get started on the house, Dan said.

Lessons to learn 

When it came time to build the actual house, the Lowes ran into a conundrum. While the home is fairly remote for Anchorage standards, located a half-hour drive from downtown, they live in a well populated subdivision, with neighbors on all sides of them.

While all of those neighbors are connected to the electrical grid, getting electricity was a little more complicated for the Lowes. Chugach told them they'd have pay for the connection lines to light up the entire cul-de-sac in order to power their home.

When the Lowes penciled out that cost versus the cost of buying renewables, they found it was close. The couple realized that at least with renewables, they would not only have energy independence, but also no monthly electric bill.

So for $40,000 the couple invested in a 3-kilowatt solar panel, a 1-kilowatt wind turbine and 20-kilowatt natural gas generator. With federal and state tax credits and rebates, the total cost for the system was about $20,500. According to the Lowes, when you factor in the savings of having no electrical bill, the system will pay for itself in about eight years.

'It's a mindset'

Everything in the house is designed around energy efficiency. Low-energy LED lightbulbs. An in-floor radiant heat system within the concrete floors, designed to better trap and hold heat. An energy-efficient boiler. A water pump that uses a gentle step-up measure that's not only easier on the pump, but uses less energy to get well water into the home's storage tank.

Dan keeps an app on his phone that shows exactly how much power is being used, and where exactly it is coming from. At any given time, he can tell what appliance is using a certain amount of electricity. Showing reporters around the home last week, the Lowes cringed a bit at their high power use. At about 440 watts, it was roughly double what the couple usually uses in the evening.

Still, Dan noted that's probably a third of what the average household uses. For comparison, that same amount of power would power four and a half 100-watt lightbulbs.

All three forms of power generation -- the wind, solar and the natural gas generator -- feed into 12 batteries capable of storing 52,000 watts of electricity.

“This is our Chugach Electric,” Fulvia joked as the couple showed off the small room that holds the batteries. Though small in size -- only three feet in height -- each battery weighs about 300 pounds.

While the batteries could power the house for about a day and a half, the couple rarely pulls directly from just the batteries, which power the house when no renewable energy is being produced.

But for all the differences, Fulvia pointed out that most are surprised at how normal the house looks. They have all the modern comforts of a house built on-the-grid, including a refrigerator, dishwasher and washer and dryer. Though that's not to say they don't come without challenges.

The dishwasher, despite being an energy-efficient model, still takes a tremendous amount of energy to run. Fulvia said she'll often have to schedule times to run the washer so as to not drain too much energy from the batteries.

Andy Baker, owner of YourCleanEnergy, a renewable energy consulting company in Anchorage, led a solar tour this spring that featured half a dozen residences and businesses using solar power to some degree. He said many on the tour were impressed with the Lowes' home.

“It's a bit of pioneering statement to say 'we don't need the grid',” Baker said. “A lot of people respected that. It's something a lot of people wish they could do.”

“When you see a real home built with all this stuff and it's working, it's a pretty compelling case.”

While it might seem challenging, the Lowes both agreed once it becomes a lifestyle, it becomes second nature. Fulvia compared it to recycling, that once you get the system in place and make it a habit, it's not hard to follow through.

“It's a mindset,” she said. “Not everyone needs to go to this extent.”

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter @suzannacaldwell.