MECHANICSVILLE -- Down a curvy road and past square fields, gray barns, still plows and grazing cows, a visitor will eventually arrive at Andrew Stoltzfus' workshop. This is Amish country -- the horse and buggy out back are a dead giveaway -- yet there, in the middle of his shop's rusty metal roof, sits a tiny nod to contemporary society.
A solar panel.
Stoltzfus is an Amish traditionalist. He works with his hands at a sawmill, wears plain clothes and the requisite straw hat, and doesn't care much for the conveniences of the mainstream world. But he uses solar energy to charge batteries for buggy lights, flashlights and the nebulizer that his 6-year-old son sometimes uses for his asthma.
"I wouldn't do without it," he said.
As solar panels become more available, affordable and easy to use, the technology has been embraced by Amish communities here in Southern Maryland, in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere. While connecting to the public power grid is generally frowned upon as an unhealthy intrusion on their simple lifestyle, the Amish have long considered energy sources such as diesel and gasoline engines -- and now solar power -- a legitimate way to fire up buggy lights and sewing machines and meet the rest of their modest electrical needs.
"The Amish appear to have skipped the 20th century in a sense," said Bill Spratley, executive director of Green Energy Ohio, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy. "They are using technology most of us consider advanced -- and they're considered the plain people!"
Spratley likes to tell a story about a friend who was on the verge of ordering solar panels from Australia when he heard about a solar dealer in the center of Ohio's Amish country who catered to Amish customers. The friend drove at length down windy back roads to get to a store in Holmes County that had, he said, the best supply of solar equipment in the state.
Recently, when Spratley went to Holmes County to give an educational presentation on renewable energy, he found that a significant part of the audience was Amish. He met three Amish men who install solar energy systems; one estimated that he set up solar panels in about 100 Amish homes in a year.
"That's when it hit us, that within the whole of Ohio, the biggest per capita use of solar is in Holmes County," Spratley said. His organization is offering a tour of the Amish community as part of a national solar conference this summer.
Though Maryland has a smaller, and some believe, more conservative Amish community than Ohio or Pennsylvania, the use of solar power is picking up in the southern part of the state where some Amish families are clustered. Stoltzfus, who bought his panel from a Pennsylvania outlet, estimated that up to 10 percent of the Amish homes in his community have solar panels.
Larry Jarboe, a St. Mary's County commissioner, is an alternative energy zealot with a solar panel on his electric car. He briefly sold solar energy equipment several years ago, and he says his customers were all Amish families.
"They saw this works well. There's no maintenance. No muss. No fuss. As long as the sun is out, it's producing electricity," Jarboe said.
In the early 20th century, the Amish rejected the enticements of the public power grid, deciding they did not want to be too directly linked to, or dependent on, the outside world, said Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
But they never dismissed electricity wholesale. Over time, the Amish have turned to a range of energy sources -- water, wind, batteries, gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, propane gas, coal and wood. The application of solar energy has increased rapidly in the Amish community in the past five years, Kraybill said.
Not all Amish people approve, but many do -- particularly if solar energy is used for business and home use is kept to a minimum. Solar electricity fits into the Amish self-sufficiency model. It is convenient, safe and, unlike some Amish-sanctioned alternatives, there are no noxious fumes or noise and no fuel costs.
"There's so much free sun and free air, and if we could harness it, we wouldn't need any more power plants," said Andrew Hertzler, an Amish farmer selling flowers and plants outside the local library here on a recent afternoon.
Most Amish people hook up only one or two panels -- or at most 10 -- compared with the 40 or 60 it would take to keep a typical American home running. They use solar electricity for such things as lights, refrigerators, cordless tools, medical equipment, air purifiers and well pumps for their homes, electric fences and water filtration systems on farms, and phones, pagers, copiers, burglar alarms, cash registers and computers at businesses.
In some cases, the Amish have turned to solar power because of the law. Building and health codes, for example, demand exit signs, proper lighting in milk houses and treated farm water. Buggy lights also are required by law.
Eric Reip, who used to install solar panels for an Amish business- man in Ohio, occasionally saw amenities in Amish homes that surprised him, including vacuum cleaners, blenders and foot massagers. He once put two panels on a barn roof to charge a 16-foot bass boat with an electric trolling motor.
"There are some people who abuse it," said Elam Beiler, 35, the Amish owner of Advanced Solar Industries in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. But in general, he said emphatically, solar energy has not changed the Amish.
"It's quite compatible with our lifestyle," he said, adding that while most Amish aren't thinking globally in terms of carbon footprints, solar energy squares with their beliefs about "preserving the Earth and practicing good stewardship."
Despite the community's famous insularity, the Amish enthusiasm for solar energy is having a small impact on their electricity-gobbling neighbors. Don Christner, a manager at Keim Lumber Co. in Charm, Ohio, said his store -- a building center similar to Home Depot -- began carrying solar panels about six months ago to meet the needs of Amish customers.
"Anywhere other than the heart of an Amish community like this, there would be no interest whatsoever," he said.
But slowly, non-Amish customers are starting to pay attention. Some local farmers, for instance, are using solar electricity in remote buildings on their properties. Christner is thinking of buying some panels himself -- an idea that never would have occurred to him if not for the Amish.
The irony of the Amish leading the so-called modern world down an alternative energy path delights Spratley of Green Energy Ohio.
"I think we can always learn something from people who may not have all the high technology we're inundated with," he said. "It certainly shows energy independence can be done, and done in this climate."