The following has been excerpted from the September 2008 issue of Ode Magazine .
Rebekah Hren stands over the small desk in the bedroom she and her husband Stephen share in Durham, North Carolina, and powers up their Mac mini. She clicks straight to the local television station’s weather site and opens its up-to-the-minute DUALDoppler 5000 radar feature.
Rebekah isn’t concerned with whether she’ll want to carry an umbrella today. Instead, she’s deciding which appliances the couple wants to avoid, which windows and blinds to open and close at what times and how long a dish will take to cook in their solar oven. “Every morning we take stock of the weather and then do the windows and shades,” she says. “It doesn’t take long. You get used to it.”
Although the Hrens (pronounced “Rens”) live in the city, their 1,400-square-foot home isn’t connected to the power grid for now. Their energy comes instead from six 200-volt solar panels on the roof, generating 1.2 kilowatts of power. That’s not an awful lot of electricity, but then, the couple doesn’t need all that much.
Since Rebekah, 33, and Stephen, 34, moved to their Durham house two years ago, they’ve been on a mission to live free of fossil fuels, a goal that by their accounts they’ve come pretty close to achieving. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job,” Stephen says. “We cut about 95 percent of our non-renewable energy use.”
They didn’t reach that low level of consumption by buying a spiffy new high-tech “green” home, but by retrofitting an older house. “There’s almost no such thing as a new green home,” Stephen notes. “New homes require not only new materials, all of which are heavily energy intensive, but often new land and roads.”
The Hrens are part of what Stephen calls “a quiet revolution” in microgeneration, in which consumers produce their own renewable electricity. This change is fuelled not by off-grid homeowners but by those connecting to local utilities. The vast majority of solar installations in the U.S. tie into the conventional electricity grid, as the Hrens plan to do, so that any extra energy generated can be sent back to the grid and used by someone else.
But the Hrens have gone far beyond greening their home electrical system. Compelled by limited oil production, global warming and a sense that the developed nations as a whole, are wasting resources in every conceivable way, the young couple is among the earliest to adopt microgeneration techniques that reduce personal fossil-fuel use and the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. “It is now possible to live a very good life using only renewable energy,” Stephen says.
The Hrens’ quiet revolution began in 2006, when they paid $150,000 for a well-worn two-story house built in 1932. Since then, with $40,000 (including foundation work) and tens of thousands more in sweat equity, they’ve transformed it into a carbon-free showcase. That’s not to say it could grace the cover of House Beautiful. But Home Energy? Absolutely.
Stephen and Rebekah Hren  are the authors of The Carbon-Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Kick the Fossil-Fuel Habit.