Renewable Energy
All things energy, from solar and wind power to efficiency and off-grid living.

10 Off-Grid Myths

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I’ve been living without any connection to grid power since 1991. The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook can teach you the basics. In all these years I can say that there have only been a few power failures at my home that weren’t my fault. Well, not directly anyway.

After living with a trusty Trace inverter since day one, I decided to upgrade shortly after the turn of the century (I like saying that, it makes me feel “experienced”) from 24 to 48 volts and to a pure sine wave inverter. Three new inverters failed within a year and tech support was as helpful as they could be, but there were no answers. Ultimately, it became clear that modern inverters are far more sensitive than those robust tanks of yesteryear. Nothing like lots of old-school copper and iron to buffer you from distant lightning strikes. I now have no less than 6 ground rods (all tied together), and three surge protectors defending two PV arrays, a wind tower, and a diesel generator against errant electric fields.

When a customer tells me they want to go off-grid, the first thing I try to do is talk them out of it. You can enjoy the benefits of renewable energy with the convenience of grid power. There are many stories about people either wanting to go off-grid, or actually doing it and feeling pretty good about it. Everyone has their reasons and motivations, and there are many rewards, but if you’re looking for a realistic (though perhaps slightly curmudgeonly) perspective from a long time off-gridder, read on. I’ve attempted to support or debunk some of the mythology I’ve heard over the years. Despite advice to the contrary, I know there are some of you who can’t be stopped (insert applause here). Plan well!

Myth #1: No more electric bills! Wrong! You may not pay the local utility, but you will pay. You’ll pay for the cost of the system (PVs, mounting, grounding, metering, site resource assessment, backup generator, etc). Then you’ll pay for batteries, and then you’ll pay for them again, and again.

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Myth #2: Solar costs less than grid power. See Myth #1. Add up those costs and add more to it. PV panels have indeed come way down in cost over time, but other system components have not. I bought my first PV panel in 1988 for $8/watt, and used it to charge a motorcycle battery that powered my off-grid room in an on-grid home. Last I looked, PVs were selling for around $.75/watt. Should I have waited? Absolutely not! The bane of an off-grid system is batteries. Despite the antiquated nature of lead acid batteries, they are still the go-to technology for large quantities of energy storage due to their low up-front cost. In my experience, lead acid batteries used in off-grid service will last seven years regardless of brand, type, or capacity. Treat them well and plan on replacement every seven years more or less. Purchase price of a battery bank depends on how much storage you need, and is currently around $125/kilowatt-hour for lead-acid. Utility power is actually pretty cheap for the amount of work it can do for you. You might also face costs related to permitting, insurance, and property tax. What PVs can buy you, on or off the grid, is a bit of buffer from volatile energy prices.

Myth #3: Off-grid means a simple life. Not so fast. Granted, off-grid living ties you more closely to reality in many ways, but managing a small electric utility requires time, skill, and savvy. All those systems will need maintenance. Failing to check for loose or corroded electrical connections can lead to minor bugs or catastrophic failure. The generator will need oil and fuel. If you have a wind tower, best to hire a pro for potentially dangerous maintenance duty! Batteries require periodic attention. You’ll need to check connections and water them every two months or so (assuming you choose lead-acid batteries). Battery maintenance also requires a bit of an intrepid spirit. You definitely don’t want to see sparks fly around loose battery connections! I’ve seen batteries explode and it is one of those experiences that keeps me careful in this work. Overall, off grid living will increase your workload.

Myth #4: Snow slides off the panels. Ummm – no, it doesn’t. I tilt my panels steeply to capture low-angle New England winter sunlight when I desperately need it to charge both my internal battery and the power storage batteries. Snow is sticky, heavy, sometimes icy, and it doesn’t slide off until I either sweep it off or the sun comes out and offers some warming.

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Myth #5: Going off-grid will reduce carbon footprint. It very well might, but first look at your regional utility grid power mix. Many utilities have renewable energy portfolio standards that make them greener, and efficiency programs that make them cleaner. If you’re on-grid, get as efficient as you can to lower your carbon footprint and reduce energy costs. If you’re off-grid, you can’t take advantage of those programs (because you don’t pay into the system as ratepayers do). In addition, when your renewable resource is scarce, you’ll need to run your fossil fuel generator to keep the batteries charged.

Myth #6: Renewable energy is more efficient than grid power. Not so much. Efficiency is not really the point with renewables though; it’s about effectively capturing and utilizing an appropriate, local resource. Production grade PV panels are in the range of 15 to 20 percent efficient at converting photons into electrons. After sending those electrons through additional power components like controllers, inverters, and batteries, overall system efficiency drops to around ten percent. About 25 percent of the energy content of the resource being fed to the utility power plant lands at your meter. Best efficiency and cost-effectiveness scenario is to stay on grid and offset your use with renewables.

windtower

Myth #7: I can continue to do things the way I always have. Sorry. No electric heaters or other gluttonous habits that squander electrons allowed. You’ll start looking differently at the ways in which nature bestows its enormity upon you. It will become a challenge to see much can you capture and use with minimal effort and cost. When nature gives, you’ll want to be ready to take full advantage of the bounty. You won’t be able to help yourself! But when the resource is not available, you need to rely on energy storage or other generation systems. You won’t be able to do things the way you did before but more importantly, you won’t want to. Autonomy comes with both costs and benefits.

Myth #8: I can drive my EV on renewable energy. Trouble is that an EV battery holds as much (and probably much more) energy as your home’s battery bank. That means spreading your renewable resource pretty thin. Unless you have a very large PV array and live in a very sunny climate, off-grid PV charging will be inconsistent and sporadic at best. I’ve been thinking about how to modify an EV so that I can charge the batteries downtown, then drive home and plug it in to provide house power. This technology exists for some on-grid locations where the electric company supports it, but to my knowledge this is not an option for off-grid systems.

Myth #9: You don't need to go off the grid to get off the consumer treadmill. TRUE! Take off-grid as far as you can, any way you can. Grow your own food, pump your own water, build your own shelter, make your own renewable natural gas, manage your own woodlot, buy less stuff, manage your own health. Low-profile is a hugely beneficial lifestyle in so many ways, but you must enter into it with eyes wide open and plan well to clarify your goals, manage expectations, and control the outcomes.

Myth #10: Nikola Tesla knew something. True again! He was a genius. But anyone claiming to have figured it out and now wants to sell you a kit to make free energy at home is only trying to scam you! Don’t fall for it.

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant, author, and hands-on/off-grid homesteader.


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Canary Islands Move Towards Wave Power

wave powerIslands are one of the most expensive places in the world to produce electricity, due to their remoteness from mainland power sources. Many island nations rely on diesel fuels to power the islands, which is not only incredibly expensive, but also equally terrible for the environment. The Canary Islands off the coast of Northern Africa are no exception, but they have been looking for alternative ways to produce electricity.

Unlike other islands, the Canary Islands have not been looking towards typical renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar power, to build their electricity production. The Canary Islands have instead been looking at harnessing the energy from ocean waves to power newly built wave facilities and harness electricity for the island.

On the Canary Islands, most of the diesel fuel is used to run desalination plants for fresh drinking, cooking, and bathing water. Having fresh water is also vital to support the 15 million annual tourists that visit the Canary Islands. Without fresh water, tourism – one of the main sources of income on the islands – would drop off drastically and hurt the economy.

Seabased, a Swedish wave energy company, is working in the Canary Islands to produce their first wave-powered plant. This wave energy installation will be able to produce 5 megawatts of electricity, which would be enough to power all of the desalination plants on the islands. This would result in clean water at a much lower cost to the islands, and would also have enormous environmentally benefits, such as a huge cut back on the usage of diesel fuels.

Oscar Sanchez, one of the owners of the largest private companies on the island, trusts that this move toward wave-powered electricity will be good for his business and for the economy of the Canary Islands.

“We have slightly less than 3,000 square miles of land mass and it makes perfect sense to get our power from the waves. I see enormous potential of using wave energy not just for specific projects, like desalination, but ultimately to provide power for hotels and the grid itself, which should be less expensive than fossil fuels," says Sanchez.

The CEO of Seabased, Øivind Magnussen, believes that the success of this wave energy installation could be replicated and expanded for other islands and countries around the world.

Infocom Connect from the United Arab Emirates has already begun working with other island nations to discuss reproducing similar installations and make renewable energy sources widespread in the Caribbean. With more renewable energy projects spreading around the globe, there is hope that civilization can begin to depend on renewable energies more than fossil fuels for the first time in history.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

U.S. Falls Behind in Solar Power Market

solar powerThe United States has never been the leading nation when it comes to solar power, but in 2017, it slipped even further behind in the competition. Now, India has surpassed the US with their efforts to move towards a more sustainable and renewable energy source.

In 2017, the United States added 8,173 megawatts of solar power capacity, down from the 11,274 megawatts added in 2016. During 2017, India added 9,628 megawatts of solar power capacity, which is more than the 4,251 megawatts added in 2016. Where the United State seems to have decreased their efforts to add solar power capacity, India has taken the initiative and more than doubled their solar power capacity from 2016 to 2017.

China and India were the two leading nations in 2017 in the solar power market, putting the spotlight on Asia to continue paving the way for solar energy. Globally, a total of 93,752 megawatts of solar power capacity was added in 2017, most of which came from Asian countries. China alone added just over 53 gigawatts (53,000 megawatts) of solar power in 2017, securing its spot as the leader in solar power installments globally.

In Asia, India is third in operational solar power capacity, with Japan in second. However, in 2017, India’s additions of solar power capacity passed Japan’s for the first time in history.

India has also put itself in the position to continue passing some of the most developed solar power markets globally. The country has been working hard to become a country whose main energy source is solar power. Their target is to reach a 100-gigawatt operational solar power capacity by 2022, and these recent pushes are keeping them on track.

India will continue on its mission to become one of the largest solar-run countries in the world, and hopefully their drive will inspire others to follow their lead. Solar energy is a cheap and renewable energy source that could help eliminate the need for fossil fuels and other environmentally damaging fuel resources.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

5 Questions for Living Off Grid

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What exactly does living off grid mean? What do you need to live off grid?

Historically living off grid meant being your own utility company for electric, water, heat, and/or cooling. Historically it meant you were too far from utilities so you had to provide your own. Living Off Grid, Really!? can be as simple or similar as going camping or having a power failure. We kick into survival mode and figure out how to live with less. Typically off grid homes used 40% of the energy of an on grid home but that is changing due to the lower cost of solar.

However there is a new breed of people “living off grid” within the city.  I am broadening the definition to mean taking control of all aspects of your life from food to transportation.

How do solar panels work and are they as efficient as people say?

Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize in 1922 from explaining the photovoltaic effect in 1905 and I doubt I can do as good of a job. Basically they convert light (photons from the Sun) to electricity (electrons which is electrical current). In other words high tech space age magic. When the solar module (panel) makes the electricity (which is DC) it is stored in batteries (on off the grid systems), and converted to AC (regular house current) to be able to run regular AC appliances.

The efficiency of a photovoltaic system is the measurement of how much of the available solar energy a solar cell converts into electrical energy. Most typical silicon solar cells have a maximum efficiency of around 15 percent. Even a solar system with only 15 percent efficiency can power the average home in a cost-effective way. Do you drive a car? Cars convert thermal energy from burning gasoline into forward motion at an efficiency around 15–25% (and this on a finite resource). Should we wait for better?

How much does it cost?

What do you want to run? I need to know your daily energy usage to design a system to provide your power. A web enabled tablet, an LED light and a cell phone can be powered off of a portable power system for as little as $150. I have wired a small cabin in Garden of the Gods for under $3000, a small house near Benton for around $20,000 or a larger business in Alto Pass for over $50,000.

Will I be able to cool my home in the summer and heat in the winter?

Cool yes as there is plenty of sun in the summer. Heat with electric, no as there isn’t much sun in the winter. However even a gas furnace or wood furnace could need air circulation and controls and those we can power with solar. My recommendation is a multi-fuel (gas, solar thermal, wood) fired outdoor furnace.

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How much room will the solar panels take?

Each typical solar module is 39 inches wide and 66 inches tall. How many you need is determined by your lifestyle’s energy needs. It is important to have a sunny location to put the solar modules facing south that is unshaded ideally from 9 to 3 which is during peak sun hours. A roof mounted system is the cheapest (don’t have to build a structure) but not always the best. A ground mounted system will always produce more as it can be mounted exactly in the right direct and at the right angle. The solar modules will also operate more efficiently the cooler they are and a ground mount has natural cooling with air flow around it.

Aur 'DaEnergyMon', is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ with AES Solar in Carterville and started educating himself about renewable energy as a teenager even before (at age 15) he moved into a camper in his parents driveway to live off grid solar and ended up living off grid for 18 years. Aur understands that living how he does makes it very easy to advocate for a life of simpler living, energy efficiency and renewable energy. His name Aur (pronounced "or") means light or to enlighten in Hebrew. Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years and he works as Chief Tech for AES Solar. He can be reached at tech@AESsolar.com . He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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5 Facts You May Not Know About Installing Solar

 

Over the past few years, solar panels have gone from a rare sighting to a common occurrence on rooftops across America. Thanks to the financial and environmental benefits of installing solar panels, this renewable energy technology shows no signs of slowing down. Here are five facts you may not know about going solar. 

Installing solar has never been cheaper – and costs are still falling

The solar industry is getting more efficient in both manufacturing solar equipment and installing panels, which is good news for solar shoppers. Thanks to consistent advances in technology and more efficient installations, the cost of going solar fell by nine percent over the past year alone. Even better, the average EnergySage Solar Marketplace shopper broke even on their solar purchase in just seven years. As conventional energy prices increase, solar will become an even better investment than it already is. 

Utility policies mean that you can get credit for your excess solar power

Utilities in almost every state make it possible for homeowners to get the most out of their solar panel installations through a program known as net metering. When your solar panels produce more energy than you can use on-site, the extra kilowatt-hours (kWh) are sent back to the grid. In exchange, you receive credits on your electric bill. Then, when you use more energy than your solar panels are producing, you can draw down on your credits instead of having to pay the utility for electricity.

Thanks to net metering, you can effectively “bank” your extra solar power to use at night, when it’s cloudy, or whenever your panels aren’t operating at peak production. As a result of net metering, you don’t need a battery, and you don’t have to stress about perfectly matching your home’s energy use to your solar panel system’s production. 

Your home insurance policy can protect your panels

While solar panel costs are definitely falling, installing them still costs money, and you’ll want to ensure they’re protected in the unlikely event they get damaged. Luckily, when you install solar panels on your roof, they are typically considered part of your home, which means that they are covered as part of a standard homeowner’s insurance policy. (Note: every insurance policy is different – be sure to confirm with your insurance agent that your solar panels are included.) 

In many states, HOA policies cannot prevent a solar installation

If you live in a neighborhood with a homeowner’s association (HOA), you may have already gone through the experience of getting approval for various alterations to your property. Thanks to solar access laws in many states, HOAs are limited in the restrictions they can put on your solar installation.

 Your HOA does still have the right to place some restrictions on how you install solar on your property for aesthetic reasons (such as requiring that panels are mounted low to the roof, or prohibiting ground-mounted solar). However, if your state has a solar access law, your HOA cannot legally prohibit you from installing solar on your property.

Solar panels are extremely durable, and require almost no maintenance 

Solar panels may be made of glass, but you don’t have to worry about them being damaged by inclement weather. Panel manufacturers conduct rigorous tests to make sure that your panels will resist falling hail and strong winds, and real-world experience has shown that solar panels can withstand intense weather conditions. 

In fact, solar panels are practically a “set it and forget it” home improvement. They require little to no maintenance over their lifetime – as long as you live in an area where it rains occasionally, you don’t even need to wash them. Considering that they save you tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetime, why wouldn’t you consider going solar?

The best part of going solar – it's easy! 

The environmental and financial benefits of going solar make your decision a no-brainer. Tools like the EnergySage Solar Marketplace make it easy to find the right solar option for you, at the right price. On EnergySage, you can find pre-vetted solar installers near you and compare all of their offers side-by-side to find the best deal on a long-lasting, sustainable, and reliable solar energy system. 

Vikram Aggarwal is the founder and chief executive of  EnergySage, the online solar marketplace. EnergySage simplifies the process of researching and shopping for solar. By offering shoppers more choices and unprecedented levels of transparency, EnergySage allows consumers to select the option that provides the best value for them, quickly and easily. Read all of Vikram's posts here.


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New Water Purification Technology Uses Sunlight

waterGuihua Yu, an associate professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, has discovered a revolutionary water purification method using sunlight and “hydrogels”.

Every week, approximately 30,000 people die due to the consumption and use of contaminated and unsanitary water. While most of these occur in developing countries, the United States is still vulnerable to illness from contaminated or unsanitary water sources, particularly after natural disasters such as hurricanes and tropical storms.

Due to the growing number of unsanitary water-related deaths around the globe, Yu has been developing a new and cost-efficient method for purifying water, using sunlight and “hydrogels”, which are networks of polymer chains known for their high water absorbency. Possessing both hydrophilic (attraction to water) qualities and semiconducting (solar-adsorbing) properties, these hydrogels enable the production of clean, safe drinking water from any source, whether it is from the oceans or contaminated supplies.

Current methods of purifying water are incredibly costly, and rely on optical instruments to concentrate sunlight. The UT Austin team has developed nanostructured gels that require far less energy, only needing naturally occurring levels of ambient sunlight to run while also being capable of significantly increasing the volume of water that can be evaporated. The hydrogels allow for water vapor to be generated under direct sunlight and then pumped to a condenser for freshwater delivery.

Since salt is one of the most difficult substances to remove from water, Yu used this new technology to desalinate water from the Dead Sea, an incredibly salt-dense body of water. Using the hydrogels and sunlight, UT engineers were able to reduce salinity from Dead Sea samples significantly after putting them through the hydrogel process. In fact, they achieved levels that met accepted drinking water standards as outlined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This was done at an extremely low cost compared to other methods of desalination.

Because salt is one of the most difficult substances to separate from water, researchers have also successfully demonstrated the hydrogels’ capacity for filtering out a number of other common contaminants found in water that are considered unsafe for consumption.

Yu believes that this method can become commercialized, and has begun preparing his research team for the possibility of requests from industry to conduct further tests.

The potential impact of this new technology could be global, helping many struggling communities and countries gain easy access to clean water, using sunlight and hydrogels.


This press release is presented without editing for your information. MOTHER EARTH NEWS does not recommend, approve or endorse the products and/or services offered. You should use your own judgment and evaluate products and services carefully before deciding to purchase.

Off-Grid Homesteading in Vermont

Off-Grid Vermont Homestead 

We always knew we wanted to homestead in Vermont.  We’ve lived other places, but none resonated as “our place” more than Vermont.  It’s the little things here, like the complete lack of billboards, that make the everyday scenery more magical.

We searched for land that we could afford and kept coming up short.  Like many young couples, we were impatient.  When we finally found our homestead, it was everything we’d ever dreamed.  Plenty of space to stretch out, a greenhouse, a pond and mature woodlands.  The main attraction was that it was well back from the road, but that meant something else…it was off the grid.

I know many people dream of moving off-grid, but that was never part of the plan.  We’re not tinkerers, and neither of us are mechanically inclined.  Our homesteading ambitions were more focused on gardening and time in nature, and we didn’t know the first thing about solar or wind power.

We were young and decided that there’s no time like the present to learn. Over the years we’ve learned a lot about managing our system, but for the most part, we’ve been surprised at just how much electricity a few panels can generate.  Even in Vermont, far to the north, we have more electricity than we can use nine months of the year.

Before we moved, we assumed we’d have to give up just about every electrical appliance we owned.  Now we’re actually buying “summer appliances” to make use of the free electricity we have so much of the year.  In truth, our off-grid home has more luxuries than our suburban home ever had.

The winter months are still hard.  The days are short, and it takes a long time for the solar panels to clear after snow and ice storms.  We’d be fine sitting by the fire reading a good book, but since we were so impatient to get onto land as soon as possible, we still need to make a living to pay for it.

With a little creativity, we’ve managed to work out ways to make a living off-grid without ever leaving our homestead.  Many of the ways we make income require a dependable internet connection, which means dependable power, which means we run the generator more than we’d like from December to February.

It's Been a Learning Process

So what is the hardest thing about transitioning to off-grid? For me, it’s admitting how little I know.  More often than not, when something breaks it’s a simple fix, but it can be time-consuming and frustrating to trace it down.  We blew a single fuse that shut down our electricity for days until we traced the problem.  One $20 trip to the hardware store later and our house was back up and running. 

Problems like that are hard to explain to our friends.  When your washing machine breaks, you can call a repair person.  They’re standardized, and there are repair manuals.  Every off-grid installation is a bit different, and it took us years to find a repair person that can help us when things are over our heads.  Solar companies these days have experience installing panels and setting up net metering systems, but once batteries are involved it’s hard to find someone willing to help.

We’ve been on our land for 6 years now, and we’re loving it.  For now, we’re working on reducing our expenses as much as possible so we can pay off our home before we hit 40.  We’re also planning for the long term.

A big part of our homesteading dream was to be able to produce all of our own food, or as close as we could get.  We’re willing to make exceptions for flour and salt, but beyond that our goal is to grow and forage just about everything.  We’re planning our root cellar now to be built this summer or next, and we’ve already planted an orchard with enough storage varieties to supply us with fruit all year.

Things just got a bit more complicated now that we have two young children, but this is the only life they’ve ever known.  They’ve never seen a television, and my not quite 3-year-old daughter can identify most the trees in our woods by their bark.  She’ll calmly sit and teach her baby doll all about mushrooms, and how to identify morels and chanterelles. 

This is the life we dreamed of when we were sitting behind desks at our corporate jobs, and 6 years into our journey, I can't imagine ever going back.  My “promising career” is shot, and my resume has a 6 year whole that I can only explain as “off living life.”  I wouldn’t trade that decision for anything.

Ashley lives in a solar and wind powered home in Vermont with her husband and two young children.  She writes about gardening, foraging, DIY and all things off-grid aPractical Self Reliance.  You can find pictures of her homestead adventures on Instagram, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter.


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