By Dan Hosfeld - What exactly is off grid electricity? Of course, many people have different ideas of what this is. For the purpose of this article, it's electricity that you generate on your own property. Generating off grid electric energy can happen through the various renewable (naturally replenished) energy sources available today. And there are non-renewable options for off grid cabins as well.
If you're considering a renovation or move to an off grid home, here's what you need to know about generating electricity off the grid.
Off Grid Electricity Options
Some examples of ways to generate electric energy off the grid include the following:
- Solar (such as photovoltaics) generally using solar panels
- Wind using a wind turbine (windmill) to turn a generator for your power
- Geothermal which is basically heat extraction from the earth
- Micro-hydro using the natural flow of water
- Generator, although not considered renewable, generators offer a convenient back up for your system
Yes, You Can Run Multiple Off Grid Electric Systems
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There are emerging systems yet the above are some popular resources. Be aware that there you do not have to select only one from the above list. You can, and many do, have multiple sources of energy off the grid.
For example, you might be living off the grid in a location with many cloudy days. You could be in an area with little sunshine due to cloudy conditions or location. Or you might not have that flowing water source. Consider all of these things when determining your off grid electric system setup.
How We Generate Electricity In Our Off The Grid Home
We currently run solar panels supplemented by our generator. We hope to eventually add a wind turbine because we have more wind than sun during the winter.
With our far north location (we're about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, at about 62 degrees North), daylight is under four hours mid-winter. Keeping our generators running efficiently is key this time of year. There are many online resources that will give you average sunlight as well as wind speeds in your area. These are helpful when determining the best plan for your specific location.
Why Consider Off Grid Energy
As most know, it is easy enough to get electricity throughout much of North America, so why off grid energy?
There are generally two main reasons to consider off grid power. One is that it is a personal choice. The other is when you have no choice due to location.
When referring to no choice, many remote locations do not have a lot of options. It can be expensive to connect to the main electricity grid in areas such as remote islands or tundra locations. There are also many locations within each country that can be extremely expensive to tie to the grid.
There are also a variety of personal reasons to choose off grid electric energy. Some people just like the idea of being self-reliant. There can be a sense of satisfaction getting energy from the sun, wind, water or earth. You have better control of your power when you generate your own. You can reduce the power outages that occur on the grid.
Keep in mind, when you're generating energy off the grid using natural sources, you rely on the elements. And they aren't always reliable. This is where generators come in handy.
The Benefits of Off Grid Electricity
So, although it is great to be off the grid, having easy access to electric power can be very beneficial. It gives allows many conveniences that assist off grid living.
You might run a fridge, various lights, pumps for water, radio convenience, tv, cable, internet, and many other things. Being off the grid doesn't mean you must isolate yourself from the world. Many choose to do so to reduce their dependency on "the world", yet isolation isn't a requirement of an off the grid lifestyle.
Energy Storage Off The Grid
One thing to consider with off grid power is energy storage. This is the ability to store what you generate to use on a rainy day. I say rainy day a bit tongue and cheek yet that can disrupt your power. Particularly if you rely solely on solar generation.
Having your utility store power means you are still tied to the grid. The difference is that excess power you create can be stored or sold to your utility. Different municipalities have different guidelines so investigate fully before deciding. The other system is battery storage. Although a battery bank is not a necessity, it certainly is great to have.
Use a Battery Bank to Store Electric Energy
A battery bank is a group of batteries you maintain on site. This gives you the option to store your generated power. Solar, wind, water, etc. creates the power and you “bank” it for later. Therefore you have power available throughout the night, or on days without wind or sun.
This then leads to the idea of a generator. The advantages are numerous although you need a fuel source. Having it is the same as the above where you are not generating enough renewable energy.
The generator can help cover you during periods of minimal wind or sun. It can recharge your battery bank as needed. It can also be standalone when you don’t have a battery bank. Many off-gridders use power sporadically using a small generator as needed.
The Cost of Off Grid Electricity
With the above information in mind, we also need to consider the cost.
Off grid, energy is not cheap and can cost more than public utilities. There's the cost of solar panels, batteries, windmill, generator, fuel, oil, installation, maintenance, etc.
Due to the nature of off grid living, many people have some key skills that help with this. You can install your own solar panels with a bit of technical knowledge. Upkeep on generators such as oil and filter changes goes a long way to save money. A windmill can also be installed by the homesteader.
Solar panels have come down in price quite a bit in the last few years. Some advertise as low as 25 cents a watt. This means a 300-watt panel can be as low as $75 when buying volume.
The batteries can be quite expensive, especially when you're buying them specifically for off grid living. They need to be capable of being recharged over and over. You will find that they will usually have a 5 to 7-year warranty. Proper maintenance of batteries can extend their life quite a bit.
A windmill can be relatively cheap although you do need a tower. The higher you go generally allows you to use the wind better. There are fewer obstructions to deflect the wind with the height.
When considering generators, you have multiple options. You can run diesel, gas, propane, or a combination of fuels. They each have their pros and cons. Propane runs quieter generally, yet not always accessible. They can also be very expensive running easily into the thousands.
Diesel generators usually have longevity in their favour. Most diesel generators are designed to stay in one place. They can be moved yet most are less mobile than gas generators. They can also be costly running into the thousands. You will also need a storage tank for diesel fuel.
Gas generators are generally less expensive to buy. You can usually get a backup for a few hundred dollars. Having a built-in tank is convenient yet you have to fill them regularly based on usage. So ensure you factor in travel expense to the local gas station to refill your jugs.
What's Available in Your Area?
When it comes to making a decision about off grid electricity, it really comes down to finding out what's affordable, doable, and available in your location.
We're fortunate to have both propane and diesel delivered straight to our door. This keeps our cooktop, ovens, in-floor heating and generators running along. And we have large tanks for both.
We have neighbours in our region that have been running diesel generators that are over 50 years old. So we can ask for help when needed. Gas generators are also often mobile and usually easy to operate. You can get a pull start or electric start.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of off grid power. And remember, this is just a brief overview of the options we see most around here. It's always best to research each fully in your own area.