Living Lightly, Sharing the Surplus

080504_bike_200.jpgGray clouds scudded across the sky and a few raindrops splattered the windshield as we approached Boise from the north. “I hope it doesn’t rain while we’re trying to videotape John Weber,” I said.

We were greeted by a gentle, cheery and accommodating John Weber. In the fading afternoon light Robyn scurried to set up gear while John gave me a tour so I could formulate the program sequence.

We started in the back yard. Fortunately the rain held off but a biting wind remained while we talked of his self-designed passive solar house whose south-facing wall of windows collects heat in winter, and whose eaves shade sun in summer. On the roof sits the glass tubing which heats water for household use. Beside it is a 2.2 kw solar-electric array whose excess electricity is fed back to the grid, giving John a “net zero energy” house.

How much electricity has he given back for others to use? 7,700 kilowatt hours so far. What if most houses were doing likewise? We’d be on our way to making fossil-fuel-burning plants obsolete.

John got started living with a small ecological-footprint some years back when he lived onboard a 31 foot sailboat with only a single 50-watt solar panel and no refrigeration. More recently he became aware of peak oil and energy decline, which amply underscored the need to reduce energy and live more locally.

Including transportation. He gave us an extensive tour and a quiet ride in his hot-yellow “Suncar” with a “Renewable Energy is Homeland Security” decal in the back window. With help from friends, John converted a 1988 Ford Festiva ($100 at a wrecking yard!) to all-electric. Most of the parts and basic directions came from a kit. It has eight deep-cycle batteries and a range of 13-20 miles. In the spirit of experimentation, John added four small solar panels to the roof, which he says can extend his range maybe four miles.

Now he’s onto far more sustainable transportation: biking. John seems embued with a spirit of experimentation, all with sustainability in mind. His backyard, which looked pretty bare here at the end of winter except for a few compost piles, will be bountiful with vegies and fruit by summer. “If you can’t eat it don’t water it!” he quipped. Fruit trees in the small front yard, vegies and berries in the back.

John is thinking through the possibilities and his own contingencies in response to energy decline more fully than most anyone we’ve met. Last year he helped found Boise Sustainable Living Community, which has grown to about 50 members who gather for potlucks, share in a “gift economy” (rather than even barter) and are experimenting with growing a variety of food crops.

As a plan “B”, John’s also researching relocating to ranch land in tropical central America, where fruit practically grows on its own. Now a vegetarian, he could easily be a fruitarian and loves the tropical climate.

For now, he’s giving it a go in the colder north. His and friends are talking about creating a cohousing community. Wherever he is, I expect this gentle and positive-spirited young man’s path will be well worth emulating: Not only living with a very light ecological footprint, but giving back his surplus.


  1. This is just brilliant!

    Alot of people just think that solar panels means a square on your roof, its always been what i’ve said – use combo systems (wind solar and hydrogen) or use it in a different way! John Weber is such a creative guy and still wants to push the boudaries 😛 well he’s already done a car – why not a solar bike 😀

    haha ok thats just lazy but kudos to the guy for striving! Thanks for a great article as well 🙂 Show us an xtracycle!

  2. Paul Ring says:

    You should provide more information on the xtracycle you show in the picture! These are great devices for creating a very functional vehicle for hauling things (you, your kids, plants, computers, musical instruments) around town!

  3. nice work, man

  4. Stuart M. says:

    I’m looking forward to watching the conversation with John Weber. He seems to be another real overachiever who puts us “who am I kidding?” armchair environmentalists to shame. John has a “can do” attitude that allows him to do whatever he sets out to do. I wonder if that same spirit makes for a very restless life: one is always looking for the next mountain to conquer, or in this case, the jungle in Central America.

    I once read about the New Harmony town that was founded in Indiana by some religious Germans back in the 1800’s. They “tamed” the wilderness, built a real town and had a communal lifestyle where only outsiders had to pay money. Unfortunately, the religious aspect was their undoing. While the common religious purpose helped them build a strong community, the failure of the Second Coming to occur, as predicted by their religious leader, convinced them that their town and life were still not perfect enough.

    They sold out and started a new town in Pennsylvania called Economy. Needless to say, despite once again building up a vibrant town, the leader’s predictions once again didn’t come true. Finally, the town’s board of trustees fell into the wrong hands and the experiment came to an end.

    Why am I mentioning this? It seems sometimes people are so fixated on the “process”, that they are never satisfied when their goal has been achieved. They don’t want to rest on their laurels, but are always looking for the next challenge. I wish John Weber all the best. He just shouldn’t forget to stop and smell the roses, too. Oh, I am also very envious of that Xtracycle bicycle extension in the photo!

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