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NorCal solar retail pioneer shares experience and lifestyle

In 1971, a 22-year-old John Schaeffer, inspired by Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, moved onto a 300-acre commune in Northern California. For Schaeffer going off-grid didn’t mean sacrificing technology and he began to sell solar and other homesteading tools to his neighbors. In 1978 his “Real Goods” store opened with the sale of the first retail solar panel in the country.

Today Schaeffer runs his Real Goods store out of the country’s largest straw bale retail space in Hopland, California (90 miles north of San Francisco). The 12-acre campus- home to his Solar Living Institute– is littered with tiny shelters (yurts, cob, straw bale, geodesic domes) built as demos and to house the interns who come to learn to build and work with renewable energy and permaculture gardening.

I first interview Schaeffer back in 2000 when he showed me the Porsche Spyder he had converted  into a speedy electric vehicle (with an impressive- for the time- range of up to 70 miles). Today he was eager to show me his plug-and-play solar kit, hooked up to their off-grid tiny house (available for nightly rentals).

In the hills above the store, Schaeffer and his wife built their own off-grid home: a round, 2,900-square-foot house inspired by Native American structures (named “SunHawk”). Rather than using the a cob or straw bale, like their store, they chose a newer material: Rastra Block, or ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms); made from 85% recycled Styrofoam and 15% cement. With an insulating factor of R35, it allows them to live without AC. The home runs off photovoltaic in the summer and hydroelectric in the winter.

The couple used reclaimed materials when possible: the roof shingles are made from recycled tires (poured to resemble slate); much of the wood is salvaged; and the porch sun screen was created with recycled irrigation pipes.