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Whether we like it or not, in the developed world, the vast majority of power for the vast majority of people comes from a centralised grid. We pay the bill, we flick the switch and the power comes out. Convenient, right? Well, this is a solution that was brought about in the early 1920s and it can’t keep up with the demands of our ever changing world.
Very few will ask themselves how this came to be, what were actions behind and resources used to allow me to, say, boil this water? If you’re reading this it means you’ve started asking these questions. Questions that are the first step towards moving to a simple yet revolutionary way of providing your power needs. One that will pave the way to a more cost effective, resilient and environmentally friendly means of powering your home.
However, one must be aware that despite the major advantages and numerous leaps forward in the progress of this technology, it still isn’t particularly easy to set up nor provide all of your needs through renewable energy. For many, we will likely not be able to sever the cable to the grid just yet or a fuel-based generator will be needed as a backup.
Regardless of your reasons behind wanting to go off grid, this article should give you a better idea of how to go about it and problems you may face.
Why Should I Go Off the Power Grid?
In case you haven’t fully made up your mind here are some of the benefits that getting off the power grid will bring.
Withstand A Crises
In a world where extreme weather that is capable of crippling the functioning of society is becoming increasingly common, being off-grid will allow you to better withstand and recover from these events. In various parts of the world, freak weather events can leave one stranded without power for days, even weeks, on end. This happened to Puerto Rico in 2017, where even after 5 months after Hurricane Maria 20% of the population still lacked electricity. No doubt then that since the disaster off-grid solutions have boomed.
While this is an extreme example it goes to show one of the main weaknesses of centralised grid based power, the transporting of that power. While the power-plants themselves are built to incredible standards, the pylons that transport that energy are often made cheaply and when broken can take huge chunks of the network down.
If you don’t want to be dependant on some external factors to provide you with your power needs, an off-grid solution is your best bet. As long as your off-grid power system is well built and well maintained, it’ll keep you well powered for years on end, regardless of what happens to the world around you.
See more: How to build an off the grid home
In many parts of the world with expensive electricity and an abundance of sunlight, it is already cheaper to set-up a solar+battery system than to buy power from the grid. BloombergNEF found that in the last ten years the price of solar watts and lithium-ion battery packs have dropped by 84% and 76% respectively. Not only is on-grid power getting more expensive and the initial installation costs of off-grid power getting cheaper but every month’s savings will be paying that down-payment back. Once that is covered the rest is free energy.
If you do end up staying attached (but not dependent) to the grid, once your home battery is at max capacity, thanks to net-metering you can sell your excess electricity back to the grid. This isn’t available to every energy provider but it is definitely worth looking into.
On top of the other benefits, any step you take towards off-grid living (with the exception of backup generators) is a step towards being carbon neutral. This means getting your power needs satisfied without polluting and damaging the environment through fossil fuel combustion. Considering residential electricity represents over 10% of our worldwide emissions, this is a big deal.
Remember there is a carbon cost for the initial installation of parts but like the financial cost, this gets paid off in time.
How Much Power Do I Really Need?
When you start considering off-grid living it’s important to look at your house as an energetical system as whole and not just the parts that make up the home. You’ll need a proper understanding of your total energy requirements, the main consumers (appliances, heating, lighting, etc…), and where this can be improved. The average household in America consumes over 830kWh per month which, realistically, is not a feasible amount to power from renewables alone without overspending on installation costs.
In order to go truly off-grid, some compromises have to be made, but how to find which ones? A good starting approach would be to go round your house, find out how much power every electrical item in your house requires (in watts) and ask yourself two important questions:
- Can I live contently without this appliance?
- How can I make this appliance as efficient and effective as possible?
When looking at your household’s energy system, it’s important to note that the amount of energy consumed might not be directly related to the efficiency of the appliance itself. Heating is a great example of this, you may have an efficient central heating system but poor wall or window insulation which results in wasted energy.
What To Consider For Your Off-Grid Power Installation?
1. Local Environment
Choosing the right energy solution, or a combination of solutions, will be decided by what is available to your property. Ask yourself, what natural resources do I have available to me that can be used for energy? Examples of this would be large quantities of biomass, good weather, a hill, or a stream nearby that flows some/ all of the year.
2. Weather Patterns
When considering going off the power grid there are only two aspects of weather that you’ll need to consider, wind consistency and sun light hours. Knowing the precise details of these two forces of nature might often require a specialist to really help you know how to maximise the benefits of their energy.
Wind will blow uninterrupted at the top of a hill or anywhere where there are no obstructions. To find a good location for a turbine, see if trees around you are not at their maximum height yet or whether any new buildings can/ will be built around you. You should also get an idea of generally which direction the wind is blowing to maximise placement efficiency.
Sunlight hits the earth differently depending on where you are in the world. Those closer to the equator will receive more direct and less diffuse sunshine than those further away impacting solar efficiency. Knowing where and how the sun rays hit the area around your home will have a big impact on the efficiency of your solar panels.
3. Off-Grid Community
If you are lucky enough to have similarly minded neighbours also seeking to get off-grid, then an off-grid community-shared mini-grid might be a viable solution. Sharing power allows you to upgrade the output of your power solutions, resulting in more efficiency per amount spent.
Also with modern technology you can share energy demand and supply easily, sort of like an internet of energy. This works as follows: your neighbour, Bob, has a big wind turbine and you have a fully solar roof. On a windy day Bob will be producing more than he can use and so the grid can take from Bob and give to you. On a sunny day you’ll be one providing more to the grid. The technology, often based on blockchain, would store the power transactions and do many cool calculations like usage reports and shared costs.
4. Storing Energy
Luckily, home batteries have come a long way in terms of price and capacity. With them you are able to store excess juice coming from your powerplant and save it for when the energy-producing conditions will be less favourable, such as the night for solar panels.
Sadly though, the capacity of even the best batteries is not enough to last a medium size household for more than 3 days. To go truly off grid you need to be producing energy all year round.
Off-Grid Power Solutions
1. Solar Panels
Most likely this will be the solution that springs to mind first when people consider off-grid solutions. Solar Panel systems involve:
- panels to capture the energy in the sun’s rays
- an inverter to turn this DC solar energy into AC
- cabaling to transfer the captured power
- one or more batteries to store any excess energy for later use
If one lives in a very sunny region, one can power a large amount, if not all, of their energy requirements through solar panels.
Even though solar panel installation costs are down 70% in the last 10 years and the overall cost of a solar watt has dropped radically, the fact remains that a 20-30 panel solar roof will be unlikely to power the energetical needs for an average american household all year round (assuming average conditions of coverage, usage and efficiency). The good news is that the average american household won’t care much about reducing their energetical consumption and hybrid solutions can help solve this problem.
2. Solar Heating
If one of your major energy uses is heating water for various requirements (which it most likely is), solar heating could be a great way to take this load off your system. Solar thermal collectors are essentially a series of pipes behind a screen that are heated by the sun’s rays. Passive systems rely on the heat of the water itself to move the water around and are less efficient but cheaper. Active systems require one or more pumps to move the water around the pipes and are more expensive but more efficient.
Considering water is the liquid that requires the most energy to heat, solar heaters are a great way to cut down this very expensive energy usage.
3. Wind Turbines
All around the world we’re used to seeing huge wind-turbines churning around powering communities, yet, the principle of a turbine applies to the domestic level too. In order to catch the nicest breeze, a domestic wind electric system has to be mounted on a tower. Because wind speeds are faster higher up, the higher the tower the more power you can harness. A taller tower, say 100ft, will have a greater initial cost for materials and foundation laying but can generate up to 25% more than 60ft tower.
You can generate power from a breeze going as slowly as 12km/h (7.5 miles/h) but faster will be better. It’s a good idea to contact your local weather service to ask if your average wind speed is at least this. If the response is favourable the next thing to figure out is the size of the turbine. Generally speaking, a bigger turbine will not only yield more energy but will be overall a more efficient system. In order to fulfill the requirements of the average american household (as mentioned above) the diameter of your 10kW turbine would need to be 23 feet. This might not be feasible for everyone and is why it’s unlikely one can get all their power needs from wind (assuming no compromises to electricity budget).
However, if you have a consistent breeze available to you, tapping into that wind energy can provide your house with precious clean energy for years to come.
If you are lucky enough to have a stream that flows within 2km then you should definitely consider micro-hydro electricity. One of the lesser known energy systems yet one of the more cost-effective ones, a microhydro system involves using the energy of water flowing downhill to rotate a turbine to generate DC electricity of up to 100kw. If the stream is far away from the consumer of the energy, this energy is transformed to AC electricity and sent to your home.
What’s great with hydro is that it requires very little flow to generate electricity and it can scale very well for much lower costs than solar and wind. Although the flow of streams varies considerably throughout the year, as long as there is some flow, hydro will provide consistent power non-stop and is not very weather dependent. Another plus is that as long as the system is carefully designed, it has relatively low impact on the surrounding ecology and will also require less maintenance than other off-grid power solutions.
While small-scale biopower-plants are not very efficient at producing energy using the steam and turbine method, having organic material that can be burned to provide heat is still a very valuable resource. Humans have been using biomass for heat for millennia and this is still very applicable in the 21st century.
Many off-grid mini stoves exist that can provide the heat needed for your central heating and hot water requirements. These require a bit of planning and you’ll have to get good with an axe but if you live in an area with an abundance of trees this is a very viable solution.
6. Backup Generators
Lastly, fuel burning backup-generators are still an extremely viable option for an off grid solution. While it requires maintaining a supply of fuel for a “rainy day”, a generator could be a life-saver when it comes to being truly off grid. An example of an essential need for power is if your water comes from a well, you’ll want to know you can pump water whenever it is needed, regardless of any conditions.
Fuel based generators are generally a lot more pocket-friendly than their renewable counterparts and are generally built to be quite resilient to various climates. There are a few choices of fuel to burn such as diesel, petrol and natural gas, that come with various power outputs. If you do choose for a backup generator, make sure it can supply enough power for various essential activities.
It is becoming increasingly popular, affordable and sustainable to take your house off the power grid and for good reason, a centralised grid comes with many disadvantages in terms of financial, environmental and reliability reasons. However, a common theme you’ll see as we have discussed each renewable solution is that, even with energy compromises it’s difficult to supply one’s house with all the energy that is needed all year round from one solution.
This is why our suggestion is to go hybrid. A hybrid system will combine solar, wind and any other solutions (if they apply) to your needs. The more sources you have for power the more likely you are to cut the cord with the centralised grid (remember you’ll need the connection if you wish to sell excess power back to the grid).
When you start looking into off-grid solutions it’s important you start to see your home as an energy system that you want to make as efficient as possible. In summary, going off-grid requires calculating your energy needs, seeing where this can be optimised, choosing multiple energy sources to harness and generate power from, and then the installation itself. After that your off-grid power system will keep you warm and powered up for years to come.