Who hasn’t been attracted to the idea of living off the grid? Between the monetary freedom and the savings — especially when you consider peak pricing and other utility charges — grid independence is enticing. It’s also practical during a power outage or emergency. Grid independence can be a formula to help any home withstand the elements. The situation is never beyond your control when you can generate and use your own electricity.
However, as some homeowners realize late in the process, not utilizing the potential of energy storage is easier said than done. Following Hurricane Sandy, many solar owners in the affected area (New York and New Jersey) learned the hard way that because they lacked hybrid operation and energy storage capabilities — their grid-tied solar electric systems were incapable of keeping the lights on and refrigerators running, because they were required to disconnect during a power outage. All those thousands of kilowatts of solar electricity being generated stayed up on the rooftops, unable to help the homeowners below.
What they needed was a hybrid approach, a way to harvest and store solar-generated electricity to use it with or without the grid present, at night as well as during the day. That’s what hybrid systems deliver: the ability to operate in multiple modes and store electricity for later use.
Such a system can “zero out” the grid if enough solar is present for self-consumption, which occurs when your solar electricity use powers the loads in your home, effectively providing off-grid independence. If there’s a surplus of solar-generated electricity available, these systems can export it back to the grid for net-metering incentives if they are allowed by the utility and locale.
Most important, they can store surplus solar electricity in a battery bank, enabling you to use your own stored electricity during peak demand times when rates are higher, giving you time-of-use control and flexibility.
And finally, such a system can keep critical loads up and running during an outage, providing greater security.
For residential users that want to control and master their electrical consumption, as well as business owners and agricultural users, a hybrid approach offers the best of both worlds: reduced or even eliminated utility charges and backup during critical times, without the need to stay totally off the grid with a system that can draw from the grid when necessary to make up the difference.
If your home or business falls into this category, below are three ways to successfully go hybrid.
Battery sizing is critical for any solar-plus-storage project. Lay out your specific intent for the batteries before making a purchase — often, users purchase inexpensive batteries to save money at the beginning of a solar installation, but they need to be replaced quickly when they can’t handle the demands of a solar installation. It’s a lost investment, a frustrating process and entirely avoidable.
Consider whether you plan to use a battery for occasional outages or if you’ll be offsetting electricity costs during peak hours. The two scenarios demand different capabilities from the batteries. Backup batteries, for example, are designed to discharge less frequently and at a greater “depth.” But use them daily and their service life is shortened considerably.
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An off-grid system is a major investment. Depending on its size, power usage, the owner’s location and goals for the project, the retail price could be $10,000 to $30,000, and that price comes before installation fees.
Of course, solar power helps users reclaim the setup process’ costs. Solar technology increases the value of a home, and you can sell surplus energy back to make a profit. By investing in hybrid capabilities at the start, the payback period can come more quickly, through increased utility savings and the ability to use solar electricity 24/7 and offset peak demand pricing.
As you talk to your energy providers — electric and solar alike — about your new installation, ask about their customers’ experiences who might have properties, energy consumption habits, and long-term goals similar to yours.
For example, one Silicon Valley home wanted to reduce the electric bills common in its high-cost area, while minimizing its peak load to the grid. The homeowner also wanted to invest heavily in smart-home technology, including the latest solutions in control, lighting, HVAC, networking and entertainment. A hybrid approach gave the homeowner an insurance policy that would keep his smart home running during storms, third-party disruptions and any other issues, while empowering his family to produce energy on site, gain independence from the utility and cut electricity costs.
Going off-grid is perfect for some, but it’s not for everyone. With a hybrid system, users can store electricity for their own use and achieve the full benefits of a solar approach, while maintaining the ability to access the grid if the situation demands. By outlining goals at the start of a project and following a successful path forged by other hybrid users, your home or business can achieve its energy goals with flying colors.
Eric Hill is senior strategic platforms manager at Alpha Technologies, parent company of OutBack Power. He has 8 years’ experience in energy storage focusing on renewable energy, telecom, wireless, industrial utilities, and broadband cable TV. Connect him on LinkedIn, and find OutBack Power on Twitter and Facebook.
Mark Cerasuolo is the marketing director and head of the training program for OutBack Power, a designer and a manufacturer of balance-of-system components for renewable and other energy applications. Prior to his work with OutBack Power Technologies, he held senior marketing roles at Leviton Manufacturing as well as with prominent consumer electronics companies such as Harman International and Bose Corporation, and was active in the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). More recently he was the marketing lead for the Washington State Department of Commerce. Mark also serves as a business & marketing advisor for the educational non-profit organization Healing the Culture in Kenmore, Washington, and was a volunteer field literacy tutor for the Ventura County Adult Literacy program in California.