Dan Pink: Across the US some 185,000 households have switched from the local power company to their own homegrown, renewable energy.

The fastest-growing segment of this population – their ranks are doubling each year – isn’t doing a full Kaczynski. Sure, these folks are slapping solar panels on the roof and erecting the occasional wind turbine, but they’re staying connected to the grid, just to be safe. And in many cases, they’re operating as mini-utilities, selling excess electricity back to the power company. Just as their cars aren’t kludgy and their food isn’t flavorless, their homes aren’t drafty or dimly lit. Call them hygridders. And look for them soon in a neighborhood near you. Because – trendmeisters, take note – hygrid is the new Prius.

Three hours northwest of Indianapolis, plopped in the middle of an ocean of cornfields, sits the unincorporated village of Stelle, Illinois, population 110. Steve and Jan Bell make their home here, on Tamarind Court, in an ordinary house with blue siding, a tidy front yard, and an attached garage. There’s a 32-inch Sony in the rec room, family photos in the living room, a Kitchen Aid double oven and a hefty Amana refrigerator. Steve, a 52-year-old former firefighter with thinning reddish-blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard, rounds out the picture of Midwestern normalcy. The Sunday afternoon that we meet, he’s wearing jeans and a floral patterned shirt – just a regular middle-class guy spending the weekend helping a friend move, mowing the lawn, and tinkering in his basement.

In the backyard, the scene is less ordinary. Standing 115 feet tall, a wind turbine gazes out on the surrounding cornfields. Next to it is a 14-foot solar tracker – 880 watts’ worth of photovoltaic panels that follow the sun atop a swivel pole. There are 28 more panels on the roof. All this feeds into a basement power plant. The alt-energy control center features an inverter, about the size of a PC tower, that converts sun and wind energy into AC current to run the lights and appliances. A bank of 24 batteries, each about 160 pounds, stores the electricity for later use.

On cloudy or windless days, the Bells rely on the batteries and then, when they run dry, draw juice from the Commonwealth Edison grid. But when the wind blows or the sun shines, their homegrown energy powers the house. And if their turbine and solar panels are producing more electricity than they need or can store in their battery bank, the couple sells the excess to ComEd.

The Bells prefer to live autonomously. They heat their home with a wood-burning stove. Their hot water, dryer, and stove use liquid propane. When I ask about their energy costs, Steve grabs some old electric bills and a pocket calculator and we take a seat at the dining room table.

In the last year, he figures, he purchased about 4,400 kilowatt-hours of electricity and sold back about 2,400 kilowatt-hours. For approximately five months in 2004, his electricity bill was zero. He pecks at the calculator to add the heating expenses, then taps a few more keys and scribbles a figure on his notepad. Last year, the total cost of electricity and gas to run this perfectly ordinary, perfectly comfortable 2,200-square-foot home was $340. The typical American household spends about $1,400 annually on heat and electric utilities. But by living neither totally on the grid nor totally off it, the Bells met all their heating and electricity needs for a full year for about the price of an iPod.

The electricity meter is one of those things that homeowners scarcely think about. Each time you flick a light switch or turn on a coffeemaker, your meter creeps forward a bit, registering the inflow of energy and charging you for it. But the sun is shining on Maplewood Court this afternoon, so I’m stationed in the bushes outside Robert Candey’s ranch house to watch his Westinghouse meter perform a little hygrid magic.

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