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Some Off-The-Grid North Floridians Get To Skip GRU Rate Increases

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When Mike Byerly wanted to build a house in Micanopy, the site he acquired was in a gap between utility lines.

Connecting the house to the power grid would require a power line extension and the demolition of a handful of trees, so Byerly decided to live off the grid.

“It’s still kind of a pioneer technology,” said Byerly, chair of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners. “I think most people should find ways to reduce their impact on the planet.”

Byerly, 49, is part of a small group of Florida residents who have chosen to live entirely off the grid by creating their own electricity and conserving water, allowing these residents to live independently of utility companies like Gainesville Regional Utilities.

As of Oct. 1, GRU customers will see a total residential price increase of about 7.3 percent for all services, according to a GRU news release.

Based on the 2014 fiscal year budget, the increases come from declining sales over the past several years and the addition of biomass energy, a new renewable generation source.

To offset the cost customers pay, GRU cut its original 2014 budget by $10.8 million and refinanced existing debts, according to the release.

But Byerly, and a few others in North Florida, doesn’t have to worry about those increases.

Byerly uses solar panels to create electricity he can store in a battery bank, allowing full-time electricity usage from a clean and renewable source.

He built the house with no central heat or air conditioning, instead opting for a design with good ventilation. Because he gets his water from a well, he pays no utility costs.

“You get independence,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about power failures. It’ll eventually pay for itself.”

Byerly said money wasn’t the primary reason he went off the grid — he wanted to do it for the satisfaction of being environmentally friendly.

He said his system requires a fair amount of maintenance, and the required upkeep becomes more important due to the lack of connection to GRU and its services.

“You’re on your own,” he said. “You can’t just call GRU when some kind of problem develops. You have to take care of it yourself.”

When asked about the lifestyle, a GRU spokeswoman, who declined to give her name, said the company would not comment on people who are not GRU customers.

Whitey Markle, 69, of Citra, lived in a house for 17 years that he built for $150 from mostly salvaged materials, without electricity or water.

He said he has never needed or wanted services from utility companies.

Whitey Markle, 69, stands next to his self-built house that has no air conditioning. It was built under a tree canopy to control temperature.
Whitey Markle, 69, stands next to his self-built house that has no air conditioning. It was built under a tree canopy to control temperature.

In 2001, he built his new house with some electricity but no air conditioning, instead using screens and a fan system to regulate heat and use as little electricity as possible.

“I don’t need it,” he said. “Every time you flip on a switch, there’s something being destroyed so that you can have that light or that water. I feel good saving the energy.”

Markle said he’s considered adding solar panels to his house, but has held off due to the price and the surrounding tree shade.

While solar power is great in principle, the cost can be excessively high, reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Wayne Irwin, 46, is the president of Pure Energy Solar, a company that does full installations of solar panel systems on houses. He said the cost of solar energy has dropped significantly in the past five years and that combined with the rising price of fossil fuels, he sees an upward trend in the demand for solar energy.

Irwin uses solar panels on his own off-the-grid house near Newnans Lake. He refers to it as his playground — where he can try out new ideas and become better informed to help his customers.

“There are many days in which we are producing far more energy than we need,” he said. “It’s a worthwhile investment.”

Irwin said he didn’t see any disadvantages to his system, other than the need to keep track of electricity usage. In addition to generating his own electricity, Irwin also uses rain barrels to water his lawn, a wood-burning stove for heat, and birds to eat insects and create natural fertilizer.

“We have been given this blessing in that we have the knowledge of how to capture energy from the sun,” he said. “It’s really an insult to the planet that we don’t use it. It’s my belief that we need to do this. It’s an obligation.”

Irwin said the good feeling he got from producing his own energy was more gratifying than any money he saved from his system.

“I can’t put a dollar value on that,” he said.

About James Thieke

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