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

Backup Power is the Beginning of Living Off Grid

Installed in 1999 

In recent months, we have seen the plight of millions of families as they struggle to cope without the power grid and this is becoming much more frequent.  What would your life be like without the monopoly of the power company? We are so dependent on electricity…almost everything at your home (and mine) would quit without power.

Look around your home. Your land-line phone, fireplace and pilot lights (on stoves and hot water heaters) are likely gone. Our reliance on electrical power has increased significantly over the past 20 years. So when there is a power failure, we have no communications, no heat and no hot water. Our electricity-intensive society needs backup power more than ever.

I’ve been installing home battery backup power systems on and off for 20 years.

Water - wells are great…but “no power, no water” (for drinking, sanitation, irrigating your garden, etc).  You can’t live without water!

Freezer & fridge - Is your garden’s harvest in the freezer?  Say goodbye to it. Ouch!

Heat - using an electric heater? Even modern wood stoves, gas, and propane furnaces need electricity to operate. Power outages in winter can spell disaster.

Everything else - from your coffee to your microwave to phones to lights.  Almost everything needs power. Is this dependence just a “fact of life”?  Something that you have to live with?  Or is there a good way out?

For years I’ve been teaching how to simplify people’s lives by “Living Off Grid, Really” on all the ways there are besides electricity to help with your life. Why not tap into the free energy of the sun to power your home and gain the security of energy independence?

Here are a few reasons why…

Energy independence - blackouts become a thing of the past!  Reliable power for your water pump, freezer, fridge, and everything else.

Cut monthly expenses - imagine no more monthly power bills in the mail.  This is a blessing when you lose your job, are on a fixed income, or anytime!

Being “green” - many are going off the grid to have a smaller footprint.

Remote property - looking at remote property that is beyond the power lines?  Now you can live normally and pay less for the land (since it has no utilities).

my system

It’s awesome! - let’s face it…even long-time solar users are addicted to watching their power production meter when the sun is shining! So, how do you actually get started going “off the grid” with solar power?  Can you phase into it or do you have to do it all at once? Does it cost a lot of money to do it?  Do you have to be an electrical engineer to figure it all out?

In the 18 years I had lived off grid, I have had the luck of great teachers and studying a lot to be able to answer those questions to now in my John A Logan college classes. Frankly, many have put off starting their off-grid journey because they have been intimidated by what they do not know.

Have you ever experienced a power outage or gone camping? These are both similar situations from an energy standpoint but the mentality we approach them are different. Both are Living Off Grid but one is done to us (power outage) and the other (camping) we choose to do.

Why not have the mentality and choose to live off the grid, thus using less. Start small; solar portable power packs can power LED lights, music, and cell phones.

Get serious living on the grid; Figure out ways to use less electricity (average off grid use is only 40% of on grid use) or not use electricity at all. For example dry your clothes on the line and use a wood stove or outdoor furnace to heat with.Get a self consumption with utility outage backup solar system that weans you off the utility as you add more solar panels.

Go all out and put up enough solar that the utility becomes your secondary power source during the winter when there isn’t as much solar.

Aur, is a NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer with AES Solar in Carterville. He started educating himself about renewable energy as a teenager even before 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. Can be reached at

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Shed Light on the Value of Solar with these Solar Calculators


Solar rooftop

Solar calculators help you determine whether solar panels installed at your home or business will save money over electricity pulled from the grid. Calculators look at the cost of energy in your area, the type of panels you have or plan to install, weather patterns, and government incentives to determine energy cost savings.

Solar Calculator

You should use calculators as a convenient first look at the economics of going solar. However, a solar calculator is not a substitute for a consultation with a professional installer, but a compliment. A trusted installer will inform you about the advantages of different solar systems, issues with your property, and who will have the most up-to-date information about energy rates and incentives. A calculator will arm you with basic information going into this conversation, and also reveal questions you didn’t even realize you should ask.

Recommended Solar Calculators

Featured here are some of the most accurate and unbiased solar calculators on the web. Each entry provides the sponsor of the calculator, as well as a rundown of their features.  

Solar to the People

We discovered this straightforward solar calculator after reading LA Times coverage of Solar to the People’s study on California solar pricing. Of all the calculators listed here, we found  Solar to the People’s the easiest to use—definitely the best option if you’re just getting started. Simply enter an address and your utility cost, and Solar to the People generates a report of your expected solar savings for three different financing options: lease, loan, and purchase.

Despite the calculator’s simplicity, the financing options are a feature not found on the other calculators listed here. The amount of additional savings from an outright purchase versus a lease surprised us and probably isn’t something most consumers think about. It’s reassuring to see that you can save money on your energy bill even if you require a loan to purchase your solar system, but good to know you that if you can purchase the system outright, you will save considerably more money in the long-run.


The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) created perhaps the most industry-trusted solar calculator, PVWatts. To get started, PVWatts only asks for an address. From there PVWatts suggests weather data for your area (accepting the default is fine), and then prompts you for a substantial amount of information about your location and expected solar install, from the basic (your energy bill) to some more advanced questions (type of solar panels). Thankfully, PVWatts will generate an estimate even if you can’t answer all its questions. Hold onto the report it generates—you can fill in the blanks with your solar installer later.

In addition to total savings, PVWatts estimates the amount of energy your system will generate. The report also accounts for seasonal variation, which is significant even in temperate regions, given the shortened days. As an added convenience, all of this information is nicely formatted for print.

California Solar Initiative Incentive Calculators

The CSI-EPBB calculator is designed for two purposes: to estimate rebates offered for a given solar system by the California Solar Initiative (CSI) and to inform consumers about the differences in energy output and savings provided by different solar system types. While CSI-EPBB provides information not found on the aforementioned calculators, it is powered by PVWatts.

In brief, CSI-EPBB requests information similar to what you might enter into PVWatts, but also requests the type of photovoltaic (PV) system and electrical inverter (the device that converts solar-produced DC power to grid-friendly AC power), as this information affects the rebate offered by California.  

When you first jump into the solar market, you’ll probably be confused by some of the inputs CSI-EPBB requests (e.g. the type of PV module, or what a PV module even is). We’ve included it on our list because it can help you make and assess the information provided by solar installers.

Though in general it’s best to avoid inputting too much personal info into a solar calculator, CSI-EPBB is trustworthy, being sponsored by the California government, and uses your information to accurately assess energy output from your solar system, which in turn informs the financial incentive offered by the California Solar Initiative incentive program.

Most of the more technical information requested will be provided by your solar installer or in the documentation for your planned or existing solar system. This information includes info about the system itself—the types of panels used, the number of photovoltaic (PV) modules—as well as about the installation—Array tilt and azimuth (degrees of rotation from true north).

Once you’ve input information about your system and installation, CSI-EPBB returns a host of useful calculations about the energy your solar system will generate and the total state incentives. As with the information you input, some of these results are easy enough to understand—annual kWh produced by your system—while others—CEC-AC Rating, which warns if your system’s output exceeds the capacity of your inverter—may require some help deciphering, but are useful in planning your system and calculating expected savings. Most important to you will likely be the estimated total financial incentive you’ll receive for going solar. Just remember that this is an estimate—the California Incentive Program (and many similar programs) will ultimately look at your actual energy production.  

DSIRE (Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency)

DSIRE offers the most extensive information on US solar incentives and tax rebates, all without requesting any personal information or account creation. Note that DSIRE doesn’t host an actual solar calculator, but we included it here to help you understand the different state and regional incentives that should be included in any solar calculator you’re relying on for calculations. Because DSIRE is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, it contains some of the most current information on solar policy and regulations.

Whereas PVWatts provide estimates of total savings, entering a zip code into DSIRE generates a comprehensive list of incentive programs for solar installation, as well as detailed entries about each program. DSIRE is most useful as a supplement to standard cost/savings calculators, as it will identify additional subsidies beyond the usual energy savings gained with solar. Listed programs include loans, financing, tax exemptions, rebates, as well as regulations that may encourage or impact your ability to install solar.

Choosing a Quality Solar Calculator

Free solar calculators can be found with a quick internet search, but not all calculators are created equal. Many are outdated, and as many more offer misleading information to steer consumers toward certain products.

This article recommended several trustworthy calculators. However, if you find a calculator you’d like to use that isn’t listed in this article—perhaps one specific to your region—think twice if it asks for contact information beyond an address and utilities cost. In rare cases, this is justified (as with California’s CSI calculator), but generally is a sign the calculator exists to fish for personal information.

Calculate with Confidence

While all calculators exist to help you determine whether solar panels are a good fit for your energy needs, you can find a range of calculators to address the concerns and questions you might have. Solar to the People provides a good first stop for assessing the financial benefit of going solar and is the best option for considering your financing options. A reliable calculator such as PVWatts will assess environmental factors such as sun exposure, installation type, and local energy costs to estimate expected savings from solar panel installation.  

Once you’ve decided to go solar, repositories such as DSIRE  can direct you to additional savings in the form of government incentives and rebates. Armed with more in-depth research about your energy needs and the range of available solar systems, a more sophisticated calculator hosted by a region or state, such as CSI-EPBB, can better educate you about the solar system that’s right for your property, as well as the range of regional financial incentives for which a system qualifies.

Just remember to use a trusted calculator, such as those featured here, as many web calculators are merely sales tools that generate biased estimates, or worse, exist solely to collect your personal info.  When in doubt, avoid it! If you have to enter anything more than an address and a power bill when running an estimate, it’s very possibly just a ploy to grab your personal information–an unfortunately common scam employed by online salespeople.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.