Going off the Grid: Renewable Energy Made Accessible

About half the electricity produced in the U.S. is still made using coal, with natural gas and nuclear also contributing big numbers. Renewable energy is a relatively small slice of the pie--mainly because it can be expensive to collect--but The Allegheny Front's Jenelle Pifer recently paid a visit to one Pittsburgh company that's offering its customers a few alternatives to the grid.

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HOST: About half the electricity produced in the U.S. is still made using coal, with natural gas and nuclear also contributing big numbers. Renewable energy is a relatively small slice of the pie--mainly because it can be expensive to collect--but the industry is growing and the public is increasingly beginning to understand it has a choice about where its electricity comes from. The Allegheny Front's Jenelle Pifer recently paid a visit to one Pittsburgh company that's offering its customers a few alternatives to the grid.

PIFER: Steven Kovacik is riding his bike.

KOVACIK: This is actually my wife's bike so I look like a giant on it.

PIFER: He's inside his office and the bike is hooked up to a piece of equipment that makes it stationary. And Kovacik is counting.

KOVACIK: 12.2, 12.4, 12.5Ö

PIFER: The numbers he's ticking away are volts. Every time he pedals he's helping charge a battery, stored in a generator, that's circulating water through the roots of a nearby hydroponic plant. When Kovacik stops pedaling.

KOVACIK: I'm a little out of breath.

PIFER: The water keeps circulating. This is a pretty small example of the kind of big idea Kovacik founded his business on. The company's called ZeroFossil. It's a small start-up with a one-room storefront that makes generators that can harness renewable energy and convert it to power we can use.

When he started his business two years ago, Kovacik was motivated by a pretty simple reality:

KOVACIK: We can't keep burning fossil fuels to power our lives.

PIFER: He says they're just not cleanóaccording to the EPA, energy-related activities make up more than 85% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. More than that, Kovacik says, burning fossil fuels forever isn't even an option.

KOVACIK: There's a finite amount of fossil fuels on this planet, and it was an amazing accomplishment for humanity to be able to use fossil fuels during the industrial revolution to build the technology our lives are based on now. But I think that after 200 years of industrialization, we've now learned it's not a sustainable course.

PIFER: Before Kovacik got into the business, renewable energy technology was mostly available in large-scale systems with pretty hefty price tags. With ZeroFossil, Kovacik set out to produce smaller machines and make renewable energy more available to the average American.

His basic model is called the Integrator: it runs about $5,000 and it's pretty small--as Kovacik would say, it's just a bit bigger than your average laundry basket. The system typically comes with three solar panels but also has hookups to harness wind, hydroelectric and human-generated power.

Some customers are using the system as a back-up generator, others to avoid risky power outages associated with the grid. One of Kovacik's current clients is an e-commerce company.

KOVACIK: And if their power even blips, it's a big pain in the butt for them. They're considering one of our integrator systems to run their servers off grid 24/7.

PIFER: Some homeowners are using the system day-to-day, to run refrigerators or power lighting. ZeroFossil's installed Integrators in five homes throughout Pennsylvania and has a few more lined up to go in soon. Kovacik says the biggest challenge still ahead of him is educating the consumerógetting people to understand the technology is here; it's affordable; and it's easy to use. But once people start using the system, he says, they kind of get hooked.

KOVACIK: It's almost like another toy to play with. Once you have that system in place, you really start to have fun with what devices use the most electricityóHow many devices can I run? How much power am I using? It really quantifies how much electricity we use.

PIFER: Kovacik's evidence of that himself. He's outfitted his office building with an Integrator and uses one corner of the room to showcase what it can do. He's charging his cell phone and running a radio, TV and a laptop simultaneously. PlusÖ

KOVACIK: I have a coffee pot here. I have a little coffee grinder where I grind my own coffee beans, so I can throw a couple beans in the grinder. This is sun-powered coffee.

PIFER: He smiles when he says it's the best brew in town.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Jenelle Pifer.