Tiny Fla. Island Debates Joining Electric Grid

The last house on the end of No Name Key. i i

It's a circuitous route to the last house on the end of No Name Key, Fla. Most houses on this tiny island community are powered by solar energy. J. Pat Carter/AP hide caption

itoggle caption J. Pat Carter/AP
The last house on the end of No Name Key.

It's a circuitous route to the last house on the end of No Name Key, Fla. Most houses on this tiny island community are powered by solar energy.

J. Pat Carter/AP

How green is green enough? For nearly two decades, that question has divided residents of a tiny island in the Florida Keys.

There are just 43 houses on No Name Key, and nearly every one is powered mostly by solar energy.

Sea gulls and pelicans gather near the short bridge that separates this island from more developed areas in the Keys. Turquoise blue water is on all sides. Just about everyone has a dock with a boat. Mangroves and palms provide cover for the miniature-sized Key deer that range freely through the neighborhoods.

And there are no power lines: It's one of the few communities in America that are totally off the grid.

But a majority of residents on No Name Key now want to change that. They say that living off the grid is actually not that great.

Downside Of Solar Living: Generators

Along with solar panels, most people here also use diesel or gas generators to power their homes.

Jim Newton, a retired schoolteacher who has lived on No Name Key for more than a decade, shows the bank of lead-acid batteries he depends on to store power for use at night or on days when it's cloudy. He says they can be dangerous.

"You're dealing with acid," he says. "It's nothing of course you can get on your skin."

There's also the potential for an explosion if the batteries are exposed to a spark. More than that, they're expensive and require regular maintenance.

This, he says, is one of the downsides of solar living. It's also a challenge for Newton and his wife to budget their activities based on how much power is available.

"I have to look at my meter," Newton says. "My meter says, 'No, you're at 12.1 volts, which is a little low, that's too low.' And so, I have to start over, making sure the wife's not doing the vacuum cleaner. It doesn't let you enjoy the microwave, for example. If my wife wants to use that, then the generator has to run."

Bringing Utilities To The Island

Newton is part of the No Name Key Property Owners Association, a group formed a few years ago to finally bring electricity and other utilities to the island. They have the backing of the local electric utility and more than two-thirds of the residents.

But there's another group of residents adamantly opposed to giving up their solar lifestyle and connecting to the grid.

At the home Alicia Putney and her husband built on the island more than 20 years ago, there's an old piece of machinery that clearly hasn't been used in years.

"This generator was last used on June 17, 1999," Putney says. "So, we have not relied on a generator. We added more panels and have been very comfortable without a backup generator."

Putney says her 2-kilowatt solar system allows her to vacuum, do the laundry and even run power tools. And with fans, she says, the house stays cool enough that she doesn't need central air conditioning.

After more than two decades on No Name Key, she has become one of the island's prime solar advocates. For years, she has fought efforts to connect No Name Key to the grid — saying it would encourage development and undercut the community's independence and unique character.

Selling Power Back To The Grid

Kathryn Brown, the president of the property owners association, says connecting with the grid would allow residents to keep their solar systems and actually sell green power back to the local utility. But they'd get rid of their batteries.

"When you connect to the grid, the grid becomes the storage system," Brown says. "You reduce the toxicity. And whatever you make goes in to support the system."

Residents won't be required to connect. Those who do will pay all the expenses — estimated at more than $20,000 per household.

Putney says she won't be signing up. Even so, she says grid supporters and the power company will be taking something from her that's irreplaceable.

A work crew installs a concrete power pole on the island. i i

A crew from Keys Energy Services installs the first of 20 concrete power poles planned for No Name Key. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen/NPR
A work crew installs a concrete power pole on the island.

A crew from Keys Energy Services installs the first of 20 concrete power poles planned for No Name Key.

Greg Allen/NPR

"They're asking you to change the rules — the status quo — to take away something from me and the people that have a psychological, vested interest in seeing a solar community thrive, "she says.

Recently, one of the last obstacles to electrification was lifted when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that power lines were not likely to harm Key deer and the many other threatened and endangered species in the area.

The Monroe County Board of Commissioners meets soon to consider the issue. But change is already under way.

Recently, a crew from the local utility, Keys Energy Services, came to the island to install two concrete power poles — the first step toward bringing on-demand electricity to paradise.