Off the grid: energy independence in the real world

Courtesy: Builidng With Awareness and Ted Owens.Forget the campaign year political slogans.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor

Courtesy: Builidng With Awareness and Ted Owens.

Forget the campaign year political slogans. "Energy independence." Out in the real world, designers and engineers are making real headway in building homes and work spaces that are off the grid, and in some cases water independent. There are some projects in the arid southwest truly exciting for those watching the spread of green engineering techniques.

I originally phoned Ted Owens to talk with him about his new book and DVD, Building with Awareness. But Owens is not only an experienced green tech designer (buildings, not clothes), but also a video producer. More importantly he's an enthusiast, deeply committed to green tech and what it can do.

BWA is a how-to guide for making a green home that's energy independent. Owens built his New Mexico house from scratch, having picked a site that was optimal for solar power. The structure includes only locally available materials: stone, straw bails, etc. No bamboo floors, no teak panelling. It's energy and water are collected on the site.

Owens's quick to point out how important it is to have real-time measurements of how energy's being used. His house provides that and so he's become adept at eliminating phantom power use by appliances that are "not running" but still plugged in. The home's solar system shuts itself down when there is no call for electricity. Passive solar is used for heating and cooling. Even in New Mexico Owens lives without air conditioning.

The book and its accompanying DVD are not just a menu of things to do, but more like a cookbook on how to do it as well. The costs for each part of the project are clearly given. The DVD provides realistic looks at techniques and matrerials actually used in the building of the Owens house. Owens did a lot of the work himself, but his information and background on what materials to use and why, that's applicable even if you hire a contractor and just watch. Owens has designed many such projects for other homeowners, but this time he wanted to get the hands-on experience and knowledge. Now that's all been put into a useful package for the rest of us.


Owens's new home is in Corrales, New Mexico. That town is also the home of the first U.S. Post Office building that's insulated with straw bails. So Owens's home is really following ina recently established trend there. His is not the first straw bail house in Corrales.

Owens alerted me to two more fascinating green building projects, and these are far beyond the scale of a single home. There's the new astronomical observatory for New Mexico Tech, Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO). Owens got to help with the initial brain-storming that led to a radical decision: the new installation would be water and energy kindependent. The planners decided to eliminate the considerable cost of bringing water to the remote mountain, or even running electricity up there.

There's also some interesting tech inside MRO, it's being used for deep space observation and asteroid monitoring. The idea being to prevent any possible asteroid cataclysms in the future. Want to know more about MRO, click here.


Owens's is currently involved in making a video of another highly green housing project. This is a mutli-story, mutli-unit building in downtown Santa Monica. It's known as Colorado Court and will being energy self-sufficient. One reason for the emphasis on green, says Owens, is that the builder will end up being the owner. Thus it makes sense to invest in solar and energy efficiency up front because of the long-lasting ROI to the builder/owner. Too often, he points out, a builder puts up what sells fastest, with no concern for future energy needs or waste.

You can check out the Santa Monica project here. "Colorado Court will be one of the first buildings of its type in the United States that is 100% energy independent. Colorado Court distinguishes itself from most conventionally developed projects in that it incorporates energy efficient measures that exceed standard practice, optimize building performance, and ensure reduced energy use during all phases of construction and occupancy"

And Owens has a clip of the project from his v ideo which is under production. Click here to see the video.

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