Tiny Fla. Island Debates Joining Electric Grid No Name Key remains one of the few communities in America that are totally off the grid. Even though most of the houses are powered by solar energy, residents are debating whether to electrify the island so that they can get rid of generators and sell green power back to the grid.
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Tiny Fla. Island Debates Joining Electric Grid

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Tiny Fla. Island Debates Joining Electric Grid

Tiny Fla. Island Debates Joining Electric Grid

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Melissa Block.

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 of them is powered mostly by solar energy. It's one of the few communities in the U.S. that is truly off the grid.

But, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, a majority of residents on No Name Key now want to change that.

GREG ALLEN: For the people who live on No Name Key, this is what paradise sounds like.

(Soundbite of waves)

ALLEN: Seagulls and pelicans gather near the short bridge that separates this island from more developed areas in the Keys. Just about everyone here has a dock with a boat. Miniature-sized Key deer range freely through the neighborhoods. And there are no power lines. But there's another sound that many say shows an unpleasant side of paradise.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ALLEN: Along with solar panels, most people here also use diesel or gas generators to power their homes. For that and other reasons, a group of residents say living off the grid is actually not all that great.

Mr. JIM NEWTON: This battery bank is right here. And...

ALLEN: It says: Danger. Keep out.

Mr. NEWTON: Yeah. Well, they are dangerous.

ALLEN: Jim Newton is a retired schoolteacher who's lived on No Name Key for more than a decade. Like every solar house on the island, this house relies on a bank of batteries to store power for use at night or on days when it's cloudy. He talks about the corrosive acid and the potential for batteries exploding if they're 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. Another is that it requires him and his wife to budget their activities according to how much power is available.

Mr. NEWTON: I have to look at my meter. My meter says, no, you're at 12.1 volts, which is a little low, that's too low. It shouldn't go below 12.2 on a 12-volt system. 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.

ALLEN: Newton is part of the No Name Key Homeowners 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.

If you visit Alicia Putney at the home she and her husband built here more than 20 years ago, she'll show you an old piece of machinery that clearly hasn't been used in years.

Ms. ALICIA PUTNEY: This generator was last used on June 17, 1999. So we have not relied on a generator. We added more panels and have been very comfortable without a backup generator.

ALLEN: Putney says her 2-kilowatt solar system allows her to vacuum, do the laundry, 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's become one of the island's prime solar advocates. For years, she's fought efforts to connect No Name Key to the grid, saying it would encourage development and undercut the community's independence and unique character.

The president of the homeowners association, Kathryn Brown, 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.

Ms. KATHRYN BROWN (President, No Name Key Property Owners Association): So when you connect to the grid, the grid becomes the storage system. You reduce the toxicity. And whatever you make goes in to support the system. So you can imagine what a benefit that would be for how many people out here would connect.

ALLEN: 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. But, even so, she says grid supporters and the power company will be taking something from her that's irreplaceable.

Ms. PUTNEY: 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.

ALLEN: The Monroe County Commission meets in a few weeks to consider the issue. But change is already under way.

(Soundbite of machinery)

ALLEN: Last week, a crew from the local utility, Key's Energy, used an auger and crane to install two concrete power poles - the first step toward bringing on-demand electricity to paradise.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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