Ian Woofenden is the epitome of a HeatSpring Sustainable Scholar. He built his first solar greenhouse at the age of ten, has pedaled his bike more than 20,000 miles since selling his car five years ago, shares his knowledge and ideas as Senior Editor for Home Power Magazine, authored “Wind Power for Dummies,” co-authored “Power From the Wind,” and leads workshops about renewable energy in Costa Rica.
1. Why do you care about sustainability? What drives you to continue your work in this field?
I have a sense of stewardship and a connection with nature that drives me to want to care for our environment. The world seems like an amazing place to me, and a great blessing, and I feel a responsibility to think and act in ways that helps more than it hurts. I guess I just want to be less a part of the problem and try to be part of solutions.
I also have a strong drive for peacefulness in my own life and in the world, and I think sustainability and energy issues are connected in both arenas. If I’m gobbling resources and racing about like a rat, my personal life won’t be that peaceful. And if societies and governments are doing the same, they will be at war with each other and the environment.
If I’m gobbling resources and racing about like a rat, my personal life won’t be that peaceful. And if societies and governments are doing the same, they will be at war with each other and the environment.
2. Tell us a bit about your background and expertise
I grew up with “alternative” parents in the suburbs of four major U.S. cities. At about age ten, I built a solar greenhouse with my Dad’s help, and enjoyed growing exotic plants. Later, I helped my folks plant apple trees and potatoes in the front yard of our conventional suburban Boston home. And my folks had a solar hot water system in the 1970s, when I was a teen. I began reading The Mother Earth News, and as a young teen, I knew I wanted to raise a family in a simpler way in the country.
I bought off-grid property in Washington’s San Juan Islands in 1980. It was raw land, so I and my family carved out a road, cut trees for clearings, built home and outbuildings, planted gardens and orchards, dug a pond, etc. In 1984, I installed my first wind generator, followed shortly thereafter with the first solar-electric modules. Over the years, I built up the systems, and used them heavily—including about a dozen years of a production woodcraft business off-grid—and learned as I went.
After more than a decade off-grid, I started studying renewable energy more formally, via various workshops and books, and decided to make it my work as well as my passion. I landed the job with Home Power magazine, and started significant workshop programs in the Northwest and in Costa Rica with a major non-profit that was a key player in the early years of the industry. So I lived with renewable energy for many years before I began writing, teaching, and consulting about it, so my primary “qualification” is from real world use of the technologies.
3. Have you ever failed in your pursuit of creating positive change for a sustainable future? What did you learn from that failure?
Oh sure—failure is part of progress. I remember someone at a sales seminar saying that if you want more success, go out and fail more! It’s all part of learning and growing and improving things. In the developing world, the primary “failures” have been project recipients not following through on care and maintenance of systems. On occasion I’ve returned to Central America a year later to find systems abused and unusable. It’s disappointing, but the goal isn’t perfection; it’s progress. So you pick up the pieces and start again.
At home in North America, the “failures” are more often people not being willing to do the non-glamorous work of changing their energy habits. It’s surprising, but many people would rather write a check for a $30,000 solar-electric system than find out how they are wasting energy and make changes in their infrastructure or habits. But I figure that we all learn in baby steps, and my job is to keep trying to share and educate—and most important—to be a decent example. Patience is an important quality for anyone trying to effect long-term and real change. And it’s unrealistic to expect 100% success. We’re trying to change hearts and minds, not just light bulbs, and people take time to adapt and change.
It’s surprising, but many people would rather write a check for a $30,000 solar-electric system than find out how they are wasting energy and make changes in their infrastructure or habits.
4. When you’re not working, what are you doing?
Working on other things. 😉 I like to live my life so as much as possible it’s all work and all play. I love playing in the dirt—building gardens, massive compost heaps (gathering seaweed and manure and other organic material by the dump truck load), building trails, etc.
I also love music, and sing and play guitar almost every day. One of my greatest joys is doing music with my grown kids, and with my partner Lisa. We perform a little, and share music with friends, family, and neighbors. I also spend a certain amount of time on “pedaling meditation”—traveling by bicycle, for transportation, exercise, and entertainment.
I’m a devoted fan of land preservation, a steward of a significant local nature reserve, and do trail maintenance there and in other places. And I love connecting with people on a personal level, and am involved in a few different communication and personal growth endeavors.
5. Three key people who have helped you grow as a researcher, writer and educator?
Well, my parents need to come first, since they were fascinating intellectuals, and both researchers, writers, and educators by vocation and example. I learned from them to think, learn, laugh, and share. Windy Dankoff was my earliest renewable energy guru and is still a dear friend. He helped me as I set up my first off-grid systems and showed me by example and by selling me great gear how to get the most out of my renewable energy systems.
Richard & Karen Perez were a great inspiration. When Home Power magazine #1 arrived in my mailbox in 1987, it was an amazing connection to other people doing what I was doing. And I am blessed to have had the magazine as a prime resource since then, and as an employer for the last 18 years.
Randy Udall was my favorite author to ever edit. His command of the facts and the language was like something I’ve never seen. He died a few years ago in the wilderness with his pack on, and I miss him greatly as an irreverent colleague, and wish I had been able to publish more of his pithy writing. I also have gained from all of my hundreds of students, and the co-instructors and contractors who helped me make educational experiences. Truly, teaching is a great way to learn.
6. You run workshops in Costa Rica to teach people about clean energy in the developing world. Tell us more about your workshops. Why Costa Rica? What do your students learn? What have you learned from these workshops?
I run two different workshops in Costa Rica. One is focused only on solar-electric systems, and is a bit more in-depth. This year’s workshop is the other program—an overview of all the renewable energy technologies and their application in the “developing world”. We cover solar-, wind-, and hydro-electricity, solar hot water, solar cooking, and methane biogas, plus a few other auxiliary technologies. And we do it by focusing on hands-on work and real-world projects.
There’s lots of information about it on my website. I really believe in “blooming where you land,” and 14 years ago I made connections in Costa Rica, when an environmental education center (Rancho Mastatal) asked for renewable energy workshops. There are other places that have more “need”, but other people will fill those needs when the time is right. I’ve become connected to this community, and a few other places down there, and enjoy making the most of it. And while I think the programs have benefitted the “poor” communities down there, perhaps the bigger benefit is for my staff and students to see a simpler and more peaceful way of life, and bring some of that back into our harried North American lives.
Bringing the first electric lights (and simple, clean ones—solar) to a family in a dirt- floored home is very satisfying. And hearing a North American student come to conclusions about how to simplify her life at home is too!
7. You’ve lived off-grid with wind electricity, solar electricity, solar hot water, and wood heat on an island in the Pacific Northwest for the last 30+ years. Tell us more about that experience. Advice for someone hoping to create the same living situation?
Wow—I could write a book about that. In my case, it was a long, slow process, because I was doing it on a tight budget while raising a bunch of kids. That was hard in some ways, but it also allowed me time to think through what I really wanted, and what would really work. I see people slam in “homesteads” and renewable energy quickly with unlimited budgets, and there are often large mistakes made because there’s not enough time to live with the land and the growing systems, and learn.
Being off-grid is not as glamorous as people tend to make it out to be. It’s hard work, both for your body and for your mind. Utilities really do offer electricity at a bargain price, and if you want to provide your own, you have to do all the jobs you pay them to do—from the suits to the overalls. It’s fun—if you like that sort of thing—or it can be a real pain. You either need a lot of money or a lot of work, patience, and willingness to delay gratification, plus enough money.
My advice? Get real about your energy use where you are right now. Understand it intimately, and reduce it to the minimum. Build small! Every square foot you build is one you have to pay for, heat, and maintain.
My advice? Get real about your energy use where you are right now. Understand it intimately, and reduce it to the minimum. Build small! Every square foot you build is one you have to pay for, heat, and maintain. Do it gradually—learn as you go, instead of making all the mistakes up front. And try not to reinvent the wheel. Lots of people have already done this, and there’s plenty to learn from them. I offer internships on my homestead for people who want to learn renewable energy, sustainability, and homestead skills. I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned with serious and dedicated people who like to learn will contributing.
8. Can you share a few of your renewable energy goals and how you’ve prioritized them in your work and life?
As a teen I dreamed of never owning a car, and I didn’t make that come true, but I let what might have been my last car go about five years ago, and have bicycled more than 20,000 miles since then. It’s a dream coming true to do much of my transportation by bicycle, and to use buses, trains, borrowed and rented cars, and airplanes now and then. I love that my primary vehicles are bicycles and my 1966 5-yard dump truck, which hauls a lot of firewood, lumber, compost material, gravel, and more.
On the homestead, I aim for minimal generator use. It feels great to have enough renewable capacity, and to manage that variable generation so that I only fire up the propane generator about a half-dozen times a year. Perhaps the biggest challenge of off-grid life is that the resources vary. Today as I write this, we’re in the middle of a nice little wind storm, and the sun is shining too. That means I can do anything I want to do with electricity. A few days from now, it may be totally overcast and calm, and I’ll have to modify my usage and be conservative until the wind and/or sun come back.
I love reusing things, and living like “there is no away” to throw things. I like to figure out how to see “waste” as a resource. Branches from pruning the orchard become the base for hugel kultur garden beds, or they build woodland paths. Anything biodegradable becomes compost for soil building. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
9. What do you think the next advancement of clean energy and green building will be?
One of my favorite slogans in the industry is “We have the technology.” I have solar-electric modules on my roof from 1984. I’m not waiting for new technology—I’m waiting for more people to wake up to existing solutions, and let go of the dirty energy technologies and habits that have become “normal”. I think we need a closing of the gap between perception and reality about renewable energy technologies. At present, a lot of people seem to still think it doesn’t really work and it doesn’t really “pay back.” The reality is that solar-electric technology in specific is ultra reliable, tried-and-true technology, and in many cases, it has a better financial payback than any financial investment.
I also think we need to see more diversification of energy production and distribution—decentralization. My colleague Christopher Freitas used to use the old “MaBell” telephone system as an example, compared to our modern varied market in communications tools, with its many choices. Electric utilities are still pretty stuck in a government-supported monopoly on service that leads to little innovation, variety, and choice. I think we could use a lot more competition and options for consumers, and we’d end up with better products and service.
10. What legacy do you want to leave your community and the world?
Oh, as I approach 60, I’m pretty philosophical about life and my impact. I hope I’ve done more good than damage. I hope I’ve shown some people a small example of living more lightly, enjoying work, being more connected to the natural world and each other. I love seeing students who go on to do great stuff. I’m blessed to have seven really great kids who are grown up, and who care and do good stuff with their lives, while having fun. More and more I realize that raising these human beings to be curious, helpful, capable, and caring contributors may be my biggest contribution to the world.
Maybe some of my writing and photos and thoughts and actions will inspire the next generation, and people will be able to avoid getting quite so sucked into consumerism, waste, and environmental damage. And I hope a few people will relax more, not take themselves so seriously, and laugh more because of my occasional good example. It’s a small world, and we have the tools and possibilities to treat it and each other more gently.