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Alternitive Energy

I Want To Live Off Grid

I can remember the tag line for FRAM oil filters, "Pay me now or pay me later".  The same line of reasoning can be applied to building an off grid power system.  Living off grid has many advantages, one of which is having no monthly electric utility bill.  Another benefit is your land purchase may be less expensive, because there is no utility power available.  A third is being able to live truly independently of the utilities wherever you want to.  A forth benefit is no unplanned power outages. The following paragraphs are just a beginner's sketch of the basics of deciding whether going off grid is truly what you want to do.

Building an off grid electrical power system utilizing solar panels, wind turbines, or combinations of the two can be done anywhere the wind blows or the sun shines. There are costs that go along with building your own power system that is truly off grid.  The major components that go into having your own off grid system are the battery, charge controller, solar panels and/or wind turbine, an inverter system and a back-up generator.

The battery for an off grid power system is used to store energy from the wind turbine or the solar panels.  The charge controller regulates the energy from the solar panels or wind turbine to the battery bank.  The inverter converts the power stored in the battery bank from DC power to AC power which most homes in the United States are wired to use.  The backup generator is used to charge the battery bank if the state of charge drops down too low where the battery bank can be damaged.  Today's alternative energy components are highly sophisticated and reliable devices that once installed and programmed will operate nearly independently of you for long periods of time.

A well designed system closely matches the electrical needs of the off-grid home with the charge and storage capacity of the battery, solar panels and/or wind turbine and the average wind speed as well as the amount of sunshine available in your area.  When designed appropriately the back-up generator should run infrequently, and only to top off the batteries or if there is a repair being made to the system.

In 2014 dollars, an off-grid solar system costs $10-$15 a watt installed for solar.  The smaller the system the higher the cost per watt will be.  The average home in the U.S. that is connected to the electrical utility uses 600 kwh of electricity per month.  To produce that amount of electricity with solar panels in Maine requires a system of approximately 6000 watts.  The installed costs of all the components in an off-grid home will run about $60,000-$75,000.  The system if well maintained should last for 20 years or more.

The utility rate in my area of Maine is rapidly approaching $.20 per kwh.  Using that figure the average home in Maine pays $120 per month for electricity.  That brings us back to the FRAM filter.  "Pay me now, or pay me later", when building an off-grid home your electricity is purchased up front at a fixed cost for the life of the system.  Alternative energy is not free energy.  There are costs involved.  Living independently of the utility on a property located miles from the nearest power line can be done, and makes sense if that is what you want to do.

There are currently federal income tax incentives that reimburse you 30% of the installed costs of your alternative energy power system.  In the example system described above, your tax credit would be $18,000-$22,500 reducing your true cost to $42,000-$52,500.  Living off-grid in a modern home built where you want to live regardless of whether there is power available can be done if you want to do it.

When contemplating the possibility of living in the Maine woods miles from a utility line, realize that you can live comfortably with modern conveniences, but there are costs involved.  A future article will discuss energy conservation, versus energy production for an off-grid home power system design.  Until then I encourage anyone thinking about alternative energy to read some books on the topic.  A very good reference is The Renewable Energy Handbook by William Kemp.

Conservation Vs. Production in an Off-Grid Power System

I've produced most of my homes electricity for several years now.  Seven years ago I installed a 10 Kw Bergey wind turbine and three years ago I added an additional 3000 watt solar array with battery storage and inverters.  At peak production with both devices I am producing 13,000 watts of power on a sunny and windy day.  On a monthly basis I have seen as much as 1200 kilowatt hours of production from my turbine and an additional 360 kilowatt hours of power from my solar array.  The average home uses 600 kilowatt hours of power on a monthly basis, so at times I am able to produce more power at my home than two average homes in the U.S. consume. This production ability came at a pretty steep upfront cost.  I have around $60,000 in my turbine and about $20,000 in my solar array with its associated inverters, batteries and top of pole mount.



3 Kilowatt Solar Array


I have read in various places studies showing the costs for energy conservation compared to the costs of energy production.  The number that I have seen is on the order of for every $1.00 spent in conservation, it would take about $8.00 spent to produce that amount of energy.  So what does this have to do in real life when thinking about building an alternative energy system?  Well quite simply the less energy you really need to produce to live comfortably, the smaller the investment you need to make to produce that energy.

A well thought out off-grid home is going to be well insulated as well as well positioned to take advantage of passive solar heating, natural lighting and have efficient electrical appliances and lighting.  The lifestyle of the inhabitants of that home will be different as well.  They will turn off lights when not in the room.  If they watch television, they will turn it off when it is not being watched.  Pretty common sense items you would think, but not in reality.  It is amazing the people that I have had as guests in my home that leave the lights on, leave the television playing and just waste electricity.  I guess they either believe since I produce my own, it is free to waste it.  It just takes a second to turn off appliances not being used, and all that conservation adds up pretty fast when you figure it is an eight to one return.



10 KW Wind Turbine


The inhabitants of a well designed off-grid home will most likely heat with wood, cook with propane or natural gas, and use efficient LED lighting in the home.  The electrical appliances will be energy star rated and they will decide what is truly important to them.  The home will probably not have a dishwasher, although it could.  It depends on what they consider necessary for their lifestyle.  I have seen some pretty amazing properties that were built off-grid and produce all their own electricity.  I have also seen some pretty modest homes with modest energy production investments with above average energy consumption as well.  Utilizing a conservationists approach to living your life will yield large dividends in money saved and still living comfortably in an off-grid home.  Decide what is important to you, what you could use less of, what you can get by without entirely and have an appropriately sized system installed for your home.  A good friend of mine with hundreds of off-grid system installations under his belt has stated that he never tells anyone that it can't be done, what he says is "how large is your budget?"  Eight to one adds up pretty fast.