Elmquist house

Asger and Mary Elmquist’s new house at Community Homestead, graced by a 50-by-20 foot solar array on the roof.

 

Asger and Mary Elmquist, the in-laws of Community Homestead co-director Christine Elmquist, have lived alongside adults with special needs for their entire married lives.

In the early 1960s, they were part of a group who came over from Europe to found the United States’ first Camphill Village in Copake, New York. Camphill Villages, of which today there are over 100 spread across the globe, are agriculture-focused residential lifesharing communities in which both disabled and non-disabled individuals live on the land in a sustainable manner, similar to the mission of Community Homestead.

It wasn’t long before Asger became Camphill Copake’s head farmer. The community flourished, and its population grew. However, it eventually came time to move on, and now the Elmquists have been at Community Homestead for 17 years. 

Having nearly six decades of lifesharing with adults with special needs under their belt, both in New York and Wisconsin, Asger and Mary are now setting out on an entirely new adventure — living independently as a married couple, in a newly constructed house on Community Homestead land, heated geothermally and powered by a 19,200-watt solar array on the roof.

“We wanted the house to be net-zero,” Christine Elmquist said of the structure’s sustainable energy sources. “The energy the house creates should equal the energy the house uses, but even better than that… we’re actually going to power most of what [our] community center uses too.”

The solar array, which has been operational for more than 10 months, has produced 16,300 kilowatt-hours of energy since last October, and fuels just over half of Community Homestead’s total electric usage. Measuring roughly 20 feet long and 50 feet wide, it consists of 64 smaller 300-watt modules. 

Built by Legacy Solar of Luck and partially funded by Renew Wisconsin’s Solar for Good grant program, as well as the Elmquists’ former community of Camphill Copake, the array was formally dedicated with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Aug. 17. Community members came out to see the new structure in person, and learn more about alternative energy sources .

“[Solar installations used to be] pretty darn expensive,” said Kris Schmid of Legacy Solar. Although Community Homestead paid about $36,000 for the pro-ject out of their own pocket, the cost was even steeper when Schmid entered the business in 2002. “It didn’t pencil out as well as it does nowadays.”

Installing renewable energy sources, Schmid says, was particularly difficult for nonprofits like Community Homestead as one of the financial incentives for it is a tax credit, and nonprofits are tax-exempt. Which is where Renew Wisconsin steps in — their Solar for Good initiative, which helps to fund solar power expansion for charitable and religious organizations, provided about a quarter of the array’s cost.

“I like to think of these solar-electric systems as like a 30-plus-year electricity pre-buy program,” Schmid said. “This system’s going to operate 30, even 40 years down the road.”

As for the house itself, it has a ways to go yet construction-wise. While the exterior is mostly finished, the interior is still in the building stages. The Elmquists hope it will be ready to move into by Christmas. Though it will come back into lifesharing use eventually, it will be Asger and Mary’s private residence for as long as they live.

“After having dreamed about alternative energy for many years, to actually see this [renewable-energy-powered house] going up is fantastic,” Asger said.

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