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Off the Grid: Cabot Family Eschews Television, Video Games and Supermarkets

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by Carla Occaso
The Hewitts get all the power they use each day, an average of 4 kilowatt hours, from this solar panel overlooking the homestead.
The Hewitts get all the power they use each day, an average of 4 kilowatt hours, from this solar panel overlooking the homestead.

It’s not about being “green,” but that is an important aspect of life. It is not about living self-sufficiently, but that’s cool, too. It’s more about living a satisfying life, according to Ben Hewitt, 42, who has lived with his family completely off the grid for over 15 years in the backwoods of Cabot and has only just recently hooked up his household to the grid. The home is nestled a mile or so from the center of town, in a hidden patch of land among extensive vegetable gardens, forest and pasture. A windmill whooshes and a solar panel sits on a hill above the house.
“The reason we got grid-connected is that we would have to replace two storage batteries every ten years at a cost of $5,000 per decade. Getting grid-connected cost $10,000. But there is not a huge difference from a resource standpoint,” Hewitt said. Not much in their lifestyle changed, either, when they went from being completely off the grid to 90 percent off the grid, he said.
Until last summer his family relied solely on a solar panel that generates 1.8 kilowatts of power and a windmill that generates 900 watts. But the family’s story is as much about consuming less energy as it is about consuming energy from a particular source. It’s about their LED light bulbs, about their stovetop espresso machine, about habits and routines that veer away from the consumption hysteria towards simpler, homegrown solutions. All told, the family consumes an average of 4 kilowatt hours per day; the average Vermont home uses approximately 19, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Half of the power they use is to run four chest freezers. The other half is used for lighting, a laptop computer (for writing – Ben’s profession), a desktop computer (for music and movies), a washing machine, a blender and a food processor. They dry clothes on a clothesline. For refrigeration, they use an electric fridge in the summer, but it is replaced by an icebox in winter. Heat comes from wood.
“We feel this is a much richer lifestyle as opposed to having endless amounts of cheap energy at our disposal,” Hewitt said. Because they produce most of their own food with an extensive vegetable garden, berry patches, cows, pigs and poultry, his family only goes to town for provisions, such as animal feed and flour, about once a month.
The Hewitts don’t have a television. So what do they do for entertainment?
“We live for entertainment,” Hewitt said, noting that his sons, Fin, 12, and Rye, 9, are more interested in hunting, fishing and trapping than anything else. They also play music together—guitar and banjo. “They have no interest in TV and no interest in video games. They think are a waste of time. Our whole life is geared toward being outside. We’re not a screen-oriented family.
“We simply find this way of life more fulfilling; we do not want to be captive to a bunch of power-consuming devices. We’d rather be outdoors in nice weather, and when the weather isn’t nice, we choose to read or play music and games. In other words, we’re not forcing ourselves to live like this just so we can lower our carbon footprint.”
The Hewitts did not connect themselves to the grid out of disillusionment with the green ideal any more than they chose to live off the grid to pursue that idea. The grid connection was a practical decision, born of a desire not to have to deal with a generator during the winter, when solar energy, so to speak, heads south and storage batteries get depleted.
With the grid connection, Hewitt wrote in a follow-up email, “life is definitely easier … There’s little question in my mind that grid-connected solar power consumes fewer resources than off-grid solar power. People tend to conveniently forget that solar storage batteries are full of all sorts of toxic materials that are industrially mined.”
In addition to his work as a husband, father and homesteader, Ben works as a writer. He keeps a blog at benhewitt.net, which gives some insight into his lifestyle choice. “Every so often,” a July 9 blog entry reads, “something reminds me of how small my world has become, how its triumphs and failures have come to hinge almost exclusively on the minutia [sic] of our life on this scrappy little rise of field and forest. There’s a whole big world out there, where people are getting rich and flying over oceans and curing diseases and starting businesses and I’m sitting here feeling smug for not killing pigs the day before company? For filling the woodshed by the first of June? For clearing up Apple’s mastitis? For getting a new blade on the sawmill and the oil changed, too?”
Hewitt also contributes to Yankee and Outside magazines. His bibliography even includes a 2009 contribution to Popular Mechanics on the generator-to-outlet details of off-grid power. In addition, this September, he will release his latest book, Homegrown: Adventures in Parenting off the Beaten Track, Unschooling and Reconnecting with Nature. He has already authored two books: The Town that Food Saved (2010) and Making Supper Safe (2011).
It is hard to imagine something the Hewitts need that they do not have at their home in Cabot; still, most Americans no longer live this way. According to curiosity.discovery.com, “no one knows exactly how many Americans live off the grid. A 2006 estimate put the number of people who produce their own electrical power at 180,000”–making the Hewitts members of a small but very interesting minority.

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