8 Off-The-Grid Communities Carving a Sustainable Path

Person bathing outside an eco-house at Breitenbush

Wonderlane / Flickr / Public Domain

At a time when household energy consumption accounts for an estimated 20% of the U.S.'s total greenhouse gas emissions, an increasing number of communities around the country are going off the grid. It's no surprise that foregoing public utilities — electricity, gas, cable, etc. — is the most sustainable way to live, but it's not without its challenges. Perhaps that's why off-gridders so often converge — to share the responsibilities and also the rewards.

Some off-the-grid communities are little more than subdivisions beyond the reach of power companies, where homeowners fend for themselves with their own ideas of renewable energy. Others take the intentional community approach, in which likeminded residents cohabitate à la communes.

Here are a few examples from around the country.

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Three Rivers Recreational Area, Oregon

Approximately 600 properties are scattered across 4,000 acres about 55 miles north of Bend, Oregon. None of them is connected to the power grid. The homes in this subdivision — a diverse mix of multimillion dollar homes and shacks — are powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and backup generators. Some have wells and others get their water periodically hauled in. The development was established in the 1960s and currently contains mostly vacation homes. Only about 80 people live at the Three Rivers Recreational Area full-time.

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Greater World Earthship Community, New Mexico

Earthship Visitor Center in Taos

RONg / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

New Mexico's Greater World Earthship Community, located about 30 minutes from Taos, calls itself "the world's largest off-grid, legal subdivision." The 634-acre development centers around Global Model Earthships, passive solar houses made of natural materials like adobe, recycled tires, and cans. Each runs on 1.8 kilowatts of solar power and comes with its own solar-powered water collector and self-contained sewage treatment system. Propane powers the stove. The only thing that ties the Greater World Earthship Community to the outside world is wireless internet, provided by Taos Net.

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Breitenbush, Oregon

Steam hut in the forest at Breitenbush

Robert Ashworth / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Breitenbush is an intentional community — i.e., one that maintains a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork — set on 154 acres near Detroit, Oregon. It doubles as a worker-owned cooperative, running the Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center, whose geothermal waters help to heat the complex of 100 buildings. Breitenbush residents, of which there are as few as 85 during the low seasons, have their own community hydropower plant that supplies electricity for the community.

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Earthaven, North Carolina

Solar dwelling at Earthaven

kafka4prez / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

This Black Mountain community sits on 320 acres of forest 45 minutes southeast of Asheville. It's divided into 12 "neighborhoods," each containing two to eight homesites. Everything is powered by solar panels and hydropower generated by a micro-hydro system in Rosy Branch Creek. Residents catch water off of roofs for use in irrigation. While there are currently about 75 people living and working at Earthaven, the community says it aims to eventually become a village of 150 people living on 56 homesites.

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Emerald Earth, California

This intentional community on 189 acres in Mendocino County, near Boonville, was founded in 1989. Eight full-time residents share a common house with a main kitchen, eating and meeting areas, and a shower. There is also a bathhouse with a sauna, showers, and garden greenhouse. There are four small cabins heated by passive solar and wood stoves. Solar panels and a gas generator provide electricity. Use of composting outhouses means there is no need for a septic system. Emerald Earth welcomes farm stays for less than six weeks and puts on a host of farm-related workshops for the greater community.

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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Missouri

Structure and garden at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

Ryo Chijiiwa / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Northeastern Missouri's Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is a well-known and rapidly growing intentional community that's been living off the grid since 1997 and is en route to becoming its own bustling eco-town. It currently has about 60 residents, but it hopes to one day have 500 to 1,000. The homes here are built using natural resources like straw bales and cob; power is generated through the sun and wind. Dancing Rabbit residents handle their own food, housing, and finances — but the growing town does encourage bartering and has its own currency.

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Twin Oaks Community, Virginia

In rural central Virginia, Twin Oaks Community heats most of its structures using locally harvested firewood and harnesses solar energy for other electricity. The community generates income through making and selling hammocks, furniture, and tofu, indexing books, and growing seeds.

Twin Oaks strives not only to live sustainably, but also to eliminate sexism, racism, ageism, and competitiveness, to "dismantle colonialism and acknowledge our position as settlers on stolen land." It is home to about 90 adults who each work 42 hours per week within the community and receive housing, food, healthcare, and personal spending money in return.

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EcoVillage at Ithaca, New York

Cohousing neighborhood at the EcoVillage at Ithaca

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The EcoVillage at Ithica in Upstate New York comprises 100 homes split into three cohousing neighborhoods. With more than 200 people living on the 175-acre property, it claims to be the largest cohousing community in the world. These residents work in a variety of roles on and off the property. The EcoVillage is home to an organic CSA vegetable farm, a U-pick berry farm, office spaces, a neighborhood root cellar, community gardens, meadows, ponds, and woodlands. At least 80% of the property is reserved for green space.