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Unplugging from the world's power lines

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
  • Growing numbers of people choose to live independently of the local utilities power grid
  • They generate their own electricity and water, using solar panels and wind turbines
  • Energy prices, environmental concerns and quest for freedom drive people to go "off-grid"
  • It is easier to set up eco-projects in places where there is a lot of wind and sunshine

London, England (CNN) -- You won't hear much about it in the vast conference halls of the Copenhagen climate change summit, but living "off-grid" -- beyond the water and power lines that intersect much of the modern world -- could hold a solution to some of the planet's worst environmental woes.

Initially adopted by hippies and environmental mavericks, the pioneering lifestyle has grown to attract thousands of devotees who choose to live completely independently of the local utilities power grid and instead generate their own electricity and water.

Some begin their off-grid quest out of environmental concerns and some see it as an antidote to rocketing energy prices and fears of economic collapse. Others simply want to be independent.

Off-grid practitioners generate most of their power from solar panels and wind turbines. They build rainwater tanks to harvest their water and chop wood to fuel their heating units. They use only what they can produce but can still live a rewarding lifestyle.

"Things require more care and planning, but it's pretty easy, it's not like we're putting on a hair shirt to live that way," TV producer and editor of Nick Rosen told CNN.

"And if you're happy with candles at night and you don't mind putting on a couple of jerseys when it gets cold, then life is as comfortable as on the grid but at a fraction of the cost."

In 2008, Rosen wrote "How To Live Off-grid: Journeys Outside The System," which chronicles his travels across the UK in a vegetable oil-fueled camper van to meet off-grid practitioners representing all walks of life: from millionaires living in eco-palaces and business professionals in canal boats to backpackers who reside in traditional yurts and rely on torches for illumination.

Things require more care and planning, but it's pretty easy, it's not like we're putting on a hair shirt to live that way.
--Nick Rosen, editor of

Although candle lighting may seem like a romantic concept, having to deal with your own sewage or scavenge for firewood to fuel your cooking stove could be a nightmare for most metropolitan dwellers.

Yet, an ever-growing number of communities are choosing to live unplugged.

In December 2006, USA Today reported that some 180,000 families live off-grid in the U.S., a figure that has leapt 33 percent a year for a decade, according to Richard Perez, publisher of Home Power magazine. Exact figures are difficult to be estimated but a further 40,000 people are believed to have gone off-grid in the UK.

One such community is Scoraig, an 80-strong off-grid settlement located on a secluded peninsula on the north-western coast of Scotland. The land is owned by Lady Jane Rice, the estranged wife of songwriter Sir Tim Rice, and can only be reached by boat or a five-mile walk through the hills.

"Actually we don't live so differently from everybody else," said Hugh Piggott, 57, who moved to the wind-swept hamlet in 1974.

Piggott, who has become a world authority on wind power, pays an annual rent of just £10 ($16.3). During his first two years in Scoraig he didn't use any electricity at all. But now, almost all of the township's households source their own electricity, water and fuel, getting most of their power from wind turbines and solar panels.

That means that local residents are able to access modern essentials such as the Internet and hot water.

"We have the same sort of facilities as everybody else -- televisions, computers, fridges and washing machines. The difference is that we're doing it with renewable energy rather than connecting to the national grid," Piggott told CNN.

The lifestyle has lately been given an additional boost as several celebrities, including Darryl Hannah, Ed Begley Jr. and Kristin Davis, have endorsed the idea, setting up their own, untethered, solar-powered mansions.

But, unless you have the means to build and house your own lavish off-grid setup -- with a huge oversupply of solar panels and batteries -- opting to live independently of public utility services is not short of struggles.

"The big challenge is to adapt your requirements to the available resources," said Piggott.

"If there's a shortage of water you need to change your habits and use less water and if there's a shortage of wind you need to switch off lights and conserve electricity."

Another obstacle for off-gridders is securing planning permission to install alternative energy technology. Rosen found that the situation varies widely across the U.S. and Europe and set up his own off-grid haven in the mountains of Mallorca, Spain.

Located at 700 meters above sea level, his property is equipped with two wood burning stoves and a couple of solar panels. Rain water is caught and stored in a big stone tank while dozens of candles provide light once night falls.

It is far easier to set up eco-projects in places like southern Spain, where there is an abundance of wind and sunshine.

Landscape gardener Robert Kite moved from London to Cadiz to set up an off-grid home with his partner, Flavia, located away from large urbanizations and close to woodland and the sea.

"It makes you appreciate the earth's natural resources. And, of course, on a financial level the benefits include no bills from utility companies for electricity, water and sewage," Kite told CNN.

The off-grid lifestyle is likely to gain an even bigger following as global warming concerns, soaring energy prices and technological advances in renewable energy are all expected to lead the trend towards eco-living.

Earlier this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told world leaders in Copenhagen that they had the chance to "change the course of history."

During the summit he called for both industrialized and developing countries to "do more" to reach an agreement on limiting carbon emissions.

Nevertheless, the advocates of off-grid living look at the proceedings in Copenhagen with increasing skepticism.

"We are still being fed the lie that we can somehow keep our lifestyles just like they are -- just tweak them a little bit with some economical use of energy here and some taxes there -- and somehow it can just go on as before," Rosen said.

"I see people who live off-grid as the foot soldiers of the environmental revolution, the early adopters of what we will all have to do in the very near future."