Want to Live Greener? The Solar Living Institute Is Your University

In an age of energy uncertainty, many people dream of living in accordance with the Earth. They can find inspiration at the Solar Living Institute. The Hopland, Calif.-based nonprofit does double duty as a model of green development and an experiential education classroom where visitors get hands-on experience with sustainable living.

"It's a chance to share that excitement and sense of purpose that comes from living sensibly, intelligently and lightly on the Earth," says SLI founder and President John Schaeffer.

Since its creation in 1998, SLI has taught more than 1,000 workshops, imbuing 25,000 students with practical, hands-on knowledge of solar, wind, water and other renewable energy technologies and their utilization. But beyond its practicality as an education center, SLI is a testament to the benefits of green living.

The Institute's headquarters, the Solar Living Center, is a gracefully curved structure made from rice straw bales and is so adept at capturing the sun that it requires almost no additional heat or light. It's surrounded by a 12-acre permaculture garden loosely designed to mimic U.S. climate zones. "It's very subtle," Giebler says. "The northwest is more lush, the southwest more arid. You get a sense of climatological variety." About 200,000 visitors come to the center each year to experience sustainable living and renewable energy up close.

Schaeffer says their sense of revelation, more than anything, is SLI's greatest success. "It's something special to see that gleam of inspiration in the eyes of people who had no idea this was possible," he says. "The education that happens here, when people experience this beautiful place firsthand, has a power that book learning doesn't."

That experiential concept is at the core of the Institute's offering. It hosts numerous hands-on sustainable living workshops — everything from converting your car to biodiesel to developing a financially viable photovoltaic system to renovating a house to be more green.

SolFest, SLI's annual Solar Energy Festival, attracts more than 10,000 people. Shaeffer's SLI team also runs a powerful year-round intern program that provides intensive "on the job" training in green building, community gardening, photovoltaics and much more.

These days Schaeffer is especially excited about SLI's Earth Day for Kids programs for inner-city fourth- and fifth-graders. It's a rare opportunity for these kids to learn about renewable energy, eco-responsibility and their interdependence with the environment. Schaeffer also looks forward to the Institute's post-carbon workshops, which teach communities how to "relocalize" and become more self-reliant as fossil fuel resources dwindle. More than ever, SLI's programs are in demand, and the Institute's unofficial mantra seems especially appropriate: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.

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