Between bizarre & unimaginable: Life off the grid

Michelle Nijhuis and Jack Perrin's off the grid, straw bale house -- powered by the sun.
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Michelle Nijhuis, Jack Perrin and daughter Sylvia on their land in Paonia, Colorado.
Jack does some repair to the mud plaster on the straw bale office he built for Michelle.
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Jack (right) built this solar-powered house with long-time friend Dev Carey. It took them four months and cost $700.
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The first of two houses Jack Perrin built off the grid here in Paonia. This was constructed with all found materials.
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Michelle and Jack in the living room of their home.
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A 'truth window' in Michelle's office shows the walls are actually made from straw bales.
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4 year-old daughter Sylvia.
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These off-the-grid neighbors gather at Michelle and Jack's house for a weekly potluck. It's a close-knit community.
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Michelle and Sylvia at bedtime.
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Photos:  JT Thomas

Mary Beth Kirchner, BURN Managing Producer

Michelle Nijhuis has lived off the electrical grid with her husband Jack Perrin in the tiny town of Paonia, Colorado – population 1,500 – for fifteen years in a house built with straw bales, plastered with mud and powered by the sun. These two are in the minority in Paonia, with only a couple dozen others who are also off the grid there.

Nijhuis has what some might consider the absolute dream job. She’s an award-winning science journalist who travels the world and has her pick of projects for National Geographic or Smithsonian magazines. But while on the road, she keeps her lifestyle back in rural Colorado rather private. It’s a way of life, she says, many consider “somewhere between bizarre and unimaginable.”

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The Switch: America’s electrical grid

Boulder Dam wires. Photo by Ansel Adams, from U.S. National Park Service.

Boulder Dam wires. Photo by Ansel Adams, from U.S. National Park Service.

The nation’s electric grid touches every aspect of our lives. But few of us give it a second thought. Until something goes awry – when we’re suddenly groping in the dark for flashlights, worrying about what might spoil in the fridge.

Consider this: the average customer loses power for 214 minutes per year, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon that found the United States ranks toward the bottom among developed nations in terms of the reliability of its electricity service.

BURN’s new hour-long special “The Switch” is about our aging electric power grid: a half century-old patchwork system – stretched to capacity – that transmits and distributes electricity from plants to consumers.

Host Alex Chadwick and BURN’s producers and reporters explore how the grid works, and what happens when it breaks under storms and floods.

We talk to the people who help fix it, a family that’s left the whole thing behind, and the innovators working to make our national grid safer and smarter.

Click here for photos, video and more from BURN’s special The Grid.

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Rome BURNS – The Vatican Conclave: Green Smoke Rising

By Robert Rand, BURN Editor

Last October, at a ceremony marking the 500th anniversary of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, declared that Michaelangelo’s frescoes exude the “light of God.” He might have added that solar panels now light the Vatican.

The Sistine was the venue this week for a papal conclave to elect Benedict’s successor. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, from Argentina, was selected. The new pope, named Francis I, will be the beneficiary of Benedict’s propensity for solar energy.

Take a look at this shot from Google maps:

Vatican Solar Panels_Google Map

The circular piazza is Saint Peter’s Square. The Sistine Chapel is on the top left, above and to the right of the iconic Dome of St. Peters’ Basilica. A stone’s throw from the Sistene, on the other side of the basilica, is a large, modernistic, quasi-rectangular shaped building. It’s the Paul VI auditorium, where, when the weather is bad, the pope holds weekly audiences with members of the public. The building has a photovoltaic panel roof.

The solar panels – more than 2000 of them — were installed in 2008, with Benedict’s blessing. They produce the energy required to heat, cool and light the building. One of the project’s engineers told the Associated Press that the panels “avoid 200 tons of carbon dioxide” every year. “This is the equivalent to 70 tons of oil.”

Benedict, who assumed the papacy in 2005, has criticized “the unbalanced use of energy” in the world. He once asked Catholics to reduce carbon consumption for Lent. And during his papacy work began on a “Vatican Climate Forest” in Hungary. The idea: plant more than 100,000 trees to absorb as much carbon dioxide as the Holy See emits annually. The objective: make the Vatican a carbon-neutral state.

Benedict has been called a “Green Pope.”  He is the first pontiff to have tooled around St. Peter’s square in an all electric Popemobile, donated to the Vatican last year by Renault.

The vehicle is powered by a lithium ion battery. Benedict previously had expressed interest in a solar powered vehicle.

All of which inspired one writer at The Atlantic to describe Benedict’s papacy as the embodiment of “The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit.”

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