CHAVIES — In the middle of an active surface mine site in Chavies stands a pair of solar panels overlooking a lush Eastern Kentucky valley carpeted with forestland and filled with wildlife. The panels absorb sunlight and covert it to usable energy to power a device that pumps water into holding tanks for use at a nearby cabin. These two panels and only eight others generate enough electricity to power the home and provide a four-day back up onsite.
The home’s owner, Ted Baker, grew up among the trees and wildlife in Eastern Kentucky, but he hasn’t always made his home here. He spent 20 years as an aeronautical engineer in Cincinnati, and it was this experience that made him long to be back in the woods, closer to nature.
Baker’s family had lived in Perry County for most of his life where he was a graduate of Buckhorn High School. His family moved to the Chavies area in 1968. He then went on University of Cincinnati. He was later drafted into the military, afterward he returned to his career, but it was 26 years ago when his lifestyle took a much more independent turn.
He had at one time considered moving to Alaska and living independently from utility companies and primarily off the land. As a kind of test run for this drastic life change, Baker traveled to northern Canada on a hunting trip, during which he made up his mind that he would rather have this life in his hometown of Chavies, Kentucky, located in the northwestern section of Perry County.
“I was thinking about doing this in Alaska and then I found this, and it appealed to me more,” said Baker. “Mostly because there is not six weeks of darkness.”
Later in life, when he was looking for land to make his home, he had several things on which he focused. For one, he wanted land facing to the southwest so he would receive more direct sunlight. He also wanted access to natural gas for a hybrid power system.
“I chose this plot of land because of all of the natural resources to support my lifestyle,” said Baker. “I am a very back-to-nature kind of guy.”
Luckily, the fossil fuel rich land of the Appalachian mountains include many areas with access to natural gas wells, including the land on which he made his home. His front yard is a green valley, and his back yard an active surface mine, the miners of which he called his neighbors.
When he bought the property and began his work of getting completely off the grid 26 years ago, he did so because of desire for individuality.
“I got kind of burnt out on being a sheep in the herd,” he said. “I got really tired of being just a number, and I wanted to do something entirely different.”
He set out to create his vision with just a few small solar panels, and began building his cabin from scratch, using timber harvested from his own property. Creating the right power system for his needs, however, was at first a bit of trial and error.
“I started with four small 60 watt panels, and they didn’t really serve me well,” he said. “I had to use a generator that ran on gasoline. So I just over time added to my panels and added to my system.”
Baker spent eight years building his home, which includes a modern kitchen with a large two-door refrigerator and chef style stove. He said his system of solar panels is larger than what many cabins would need, but he does enjoy those modern conveniences and built his system to fit his life.
He now has 10 solar panels that connect to 28 batteries designed for use in golf carts. These batteries can hold enough charge to power his home for four days without any sun. Attached to the system is also a generator that runs on the natural gas well on his property, from which he generates power to operate appliances that draw more power such as an electric stove and clothes dryer.
“The generator is connected to the natural gas well,” he explained, adding that when the generator kicks on, it also recharges the batteries. “It comes on automatically when I run out of my four days of autonomy if it stays cloudy too long.”
For the past 26 years now, Baker has been able to live 100 percent off the grid. He has even been able to grow, hunt and cultivate much of his own food. He keeps bees and makes his own honey. He also has fruit trees planted around his property. In his living room is his hunting rifle which was designed by the most decorated sniper in U.S. military history.
All totaled, he rarely has to think about his power, water or food since it is nearly all available on his land. He said other than doing monthly maintenance on the 28 batteries and moving his solar panels to face the sun at the change of each season, his system takes care of itself.
He estimates that in energy cost alone he saves around $20,000 every 10 years, including the price of his panels and maintenance.
Living off the land has been great for him, he continued, and even during the harshest times he has been able to avoid having to leave his home for supplies. “One winter I went out two times,” he said. “That was the best year of my life.”
His life isn’t all about nature, though, and he did say he does enjoy some conveniences that do take him away such as his extensive traveling. “I am not entirely comfortable living entirely with nature. I am a little more spoiled,” said Baker. “I like having a structure and clothes and things like that. I like to eat out once in a while.”
It is often misunderstood that his way of living is in conflict with the coal mining industry that supports much of the area. Baker said this is simply not true. His father was a coal miner and he currently shares the land he owns with a mine.
“I am rather proud of all the mortgages I have paid and school clothes I have bought for all the miners, 180 that work on this mine,” he said.
And while the mine company gets the coal and the workers get employment, he is getting something he wants out of this arrangement as well. “I have ambitions of ranching cattle here when they are done,” he said. “When I moved here this was all trees, the only thing you could do was hunt grouse.”
With coal being used less and less for energy, he hopes more people in Eastern Kentucky will make their own power and it can become a major industry in the region. “Our coal is leaving us. Much of the mineable coal is already gone and we need a replacement for that and a replacement industry and a replacement energy in here,” he said. “I don’t see the conflict, really.”