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.
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.
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.
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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