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Creating the Alternative Tour, First Stop: Solar Living Institute – Soaking Up Some Rays of Inspiration

For background on this series, please see: Creating the Alternative Tour – Intro

by Mo Lohre & William Redwine

Brakes begin failing in Mendocino Range

By the time we reached the Solar Living Institute (SLI), north of San Francisco in Mendocino County, we had only been on tour for less than 24 hours and already had learned some crucial lessons. We realized quickly that everything to do with living in a sustainable RV takes more time. Driving no faster than 55mph and redefining the word "slow" in slow-cooker due to clouded solar energy, taught us that regenerative living was a process and required patience. When our brakes started smoking we also learned that 28 foot rigs aren’t supposed to travel across narrow passages in the Mendocino Mountains.

When we made it to the gates of the SLI we were exhausted, a bit gnarly smelling, starved and it was unfortunately after hours of operation. One of the reasons we were headed here was for fuel, specifically 100% waste vegetable oil biodiesel. This was due to a vow we took in May 2012 to avoid the use of all petroleum and our next petroleum-free option was in San Francisco… about 2 hours away. We were reluctant to open the gate and search for someone still awake and willing to fill up the tank. However, our hitchhiking friends, River and Liberty, were up for the challenge as a way to show gratitude for the petroleum-free ride. Our new friends were successful in finding Nathan, the site manager. He told us the fuel was locked up and the operator, with the only key, lived off-site. After giving us the disheartening news Nathan warmly opened the gates, offered for us to stay the night at a "donation only" rate, and then gave us a quick tour of their facilities.

After that, we checked out their shower. We’ve been taking cold bucket showers since our stance against petroleum, so the opportunity to experience a solar heated shower was first on our list.

Solar Living Institute’s mosaic cob bathhouse

The shower and bathhouse are covered in mosaic tiling and naturally built using light-straw and cob. The natural filtration, solar heating system in combination with the star-studded sky made this one of the best showers of our lives.

Outdoor shower option attached to side of bathhouse

The next morning we had a chance to see the institute in all its sunlit (solar) glory. Their twelve acre site was chock full of appropriate tech awesomeness.

A 3000 gallon salvaged wine barrel from a local winery serves as the site’s largest and highest above-ground water storage. It’s equipped with a solar pump that can pump up to 42 gallons of water a minute in full sun.

Their “slow sand filter” (above) is a good simple alternative for filtering water. There’s a layer called the “schmutzdecke” that is habitat for good bacteria and other microorganisms that basically prey on unwanted bacteria and other microbes.

A plethora of natural and alternative buildings dot the site.

Top left: Light straw aka clay straw on a stick frame with an earthen plaster. Top right: a geodesic greenhouse where they have a small aquaponics setup. Bottom left: in the shade of a large solar array a small strawbale structure is growing. Bottom right: cob was used to build this unit to house the pump equipment.

As an intern you get to live in one of these magnificent natural buildings and live out permaculture principles.

On display is another interesting feature that we are wanting to learn about on this tour, and that is pedal power. These exercise bikes are hooked up to light bulbs so anyone can see directly how much power it really takes to keep the lights on!

Before we left we topped off with 100% waste veggie oil sourced biodiesel, staying true to our commitment to find alternatives to petrol.

The Solar Living Institute was the first solar power plant in California and the first place to sell a solar PV panel in the United States. It’s rich history and focus on permaculture made this experience an epic beginning for our tour.

Check more about the Solar Living Institute at and find out about all the events, workshops, internships, and other activities.

On to our next stop!

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