Going Off the Grid
New Options in Residential Energy
When turning off the lights every time we leave the room and doing laundry at 2 a.m. doesn’t seem to make any difference to our utility bills, energy self-sufficiency becomes more appealing. Now, after years of paying soaring household electrical bills, many homeowners dream about going off the grid.
With most electric utilities across North America switching from flat rate to time-based energy provision – also called off-peak or time-of-use (TOU) – customer charges vary dramatically. Priciest during the day and less expensive on weekends and holidays, power usage can be challenging to manage. No matter how frugal or environmentally aware we are, many of us still need to use our ovens, and run the dishwasher during daylight hours.
The avoidance of paying exorbitant prices for power is no longer only the goal of survivalists and environmentalists who dream of leaving big cities for a life in the wilderness, but has come within reach of all of us thanks to technological improvements, and lower equipment and supply costs.
Growing energy independence
Compared to just a few decades ago, our energy needs have gone from merely greedy to insatiable.
From power-hungry appliances like clothes dryers and ovens to smartphones, massive flat-screen TVs, video game consoles, laptop computers and tablets, our dependence on a reliable supply of electricity is enormous. And even after years of renewable-energy initiatives and investment, much of our power still comes from fossil fuels.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), utility-scale generators were behind the net generation of approximately 4.1 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2019, the latest available year for data. Leading the energy source pack at 38 percent was natural gas, followed by coal, 23 percent, nuclear, 20 percent, renewables at 17 percent (total), then non-hydroelectric renewables, hydroelectric, and petroleum (plus remaining minor sources) at ten, seven, and one percent.
Together with increasing electrical usage comes the need for a stable supply of power, which is far from guaranteed today. It isn’t unusual to experience brownouts in peak summer months, when central and portable air conditioners and ceiling fans are running constantly.
Brownouts, whether deliberate or unintentional, are drops in voltage levels, and usually last just a few minutes compared to dreaded blackouts, which can affect small towns or major cities for hours, days, or even longer. Caused by mechanical failure, human error or weather, some of the largest – and longest – include the Northeast Blackout (2003), Hurricane Sandy (2012), and the Ice Storm of 2013, which left many across North America without power for weeks.
These and similar power outages resulted in some homeowners – frustrated by freezing and bursting water pipes – investing in diesel generators, from small models costing a few hundred dollars, to large outdoor units priced well into the thousands.
About the size of a central air conditioner, these advanced home backup generators are powered by natural gas or liquid propane (LP). Comfortable in the security of being able to generate electricity as long as fuel is flowing, savvy homeowners can remotely monitor the operating status and maintenance of these backup generators from anywhere in the world via smartphone, tablet, or computer.
Get the lead out
While backup generators are an option, they represent just one step toward getting off the grid for good, along with solar, wind, hydroelectric and geothermal. Although our forerunners have harnessed the rays of the sun for thousands of years through mirrors and magnification, lighting torches and cooking food, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that scientists began investigating methods of collecting and storing solar power.
In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts created the first true solar cells. Fritts installed solar panels, from a combination of thin layers of gold and selenium, on the roof of a New York City building. While functioning at a low energy conversion rate, his invention paved the way for greater solar energy developments, such as those used on satellites launched in the late 1950s.
Coinciding with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil crisis of 1973 and a 400 percent increase in the price of a barrel of oil, the University of Delaware created the world’s first photovoltaic (PV) powered residence. The storage option for off-grid solar energy was lead acid batteries. Large, expensive, cumbersome and needing to be stored upright, these batteries were comprised of lead and sulphuric acid. Highly corrosive and prone to leaking, lead acid batteries must be properly recycled, and never discarded in landfill where they can affect ground water.
Providing about 1,000 to 3,000 cycles (at a 60 percent discharge rate), lead batteries are still used for solar, but are being replaced by safer lithium batteries. Smaller than the lead version, lithium batteries are more expensive up-front but have a long lifespan, making them well-suited to off-the-grid solar-powered homes.
All batteries retain a certain charge, but the discharge rate of lithium is 80 percent or greater, compared to about 50 percent for lead-based batteries.
In 2015, famed electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla incorporated lithium-ion battery technology into the Powerwall. One of the first commercially-available all-in-one units, the Powerwall was designed to store TOU energy, to be combined with solar panels, to serve as backup power, and to be suitable for homeowners going off the grid.
In just five years, many other companies leapt aboard with their own home-battery backups, including Germany’s Sonnen and South Korea’s LG.
For homeowners wanting to unshackle themselves from utility companies, solar is just one option.
Another fast gaining popularity is geothermal. Taking advantage of Mother Nature, geothermal uses the energy stored below ground to heat our homes in winter, and cool them during the summer. Since the ground absorbs solar energy, geothermal taps into this energy through an underground pipe system. Filled with water, pipes are configured into a loop below the ground’s frost line.
Meanwhile, an indoor geothermal heat pump works with a system of ducts or radiators. Water continually circulates. During warm months, this water is transferred outdoors to cooler earth, and the heat pump takes this cold water, and returns it to the home; in the winter, warm water is circulated through houses.
While geothermal energy from natural hot springs has been used for thousands of years for bathing and cooking, it wasn’t until the early 1890s that it was used in the United States. Requiring drilling, trenching, pipe loops and the purchase and installation of a heat pump, ductwork, and various electrical components, the installation of geothermal systems varies widely in price. For smaller off the grid homes, it can typically cost US$12,000; for larger houses, geothermal systems can run to US$30,000 or more, depending on complexity.
Although this may seem a hefty initial expense, geothermal systems are effective. Compared to traditional furnaces and air conditioning – which usually last 10 to 15 years – geothermal systems have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years.
The power of renewables
As more companies enter the market, the price of renewable sources of energy continues to drop, including that of wind and hydro power.
Once the domain of large cities and municipalities with wind farms, home wind turbines are now affordable and readily available. Depending on energy needs and size of the property, wind generation models come in the 500, 600, 1500 and 2000 Watt ranges, and with different wind-speed ratings.
Widely available online from Amazon and other retailers, kits from companies like Eco-Worthy include not only a wind turbine, but also solar panels which can be used for both off-grid homes and boats. Called hybrids, these wind/solar systems take advantage of both forms of renewable energy – often when the sun is out there is little wind, and when winds are strong, it is overcast.
For those off the grid, these hybrid systems are efficient, highly scalable, and relatively affordable. If additional solar panels or another wind turbine is needed, these can be easily added to meet energy needs.
Going with the flow
Although water power was used for thousands of years to turn paddle wheels and grind wheat into flour, the first true hydroelectric generation only started in 1880, when a water turbine was connected to a dynamo in Grand Rapids, Michigan to produce light.
This led to the development of large-scale hydroelectric generation sites across the U.S. and Canada, notably the Hoover Dam – which generates approximately four billion kilowatt hours of power annually – and multiple hydroelectric generating stations near Niagara Falls.
For those living off the grid near sources of running water, hydroelectric power is another renewable option. Depending on location (sometimes turbines are not permitted to disrupt waterways), there are two options: tapping-into dammed water flowing into a turbine, or a turbine directly located in a river, lake, creek or stream.
To be successful, a certain elevation or ‘head’ and adequate water flow – measured in gallons per minute – is required. Since little equipment other than a turbine and generator is necessary, this makes hydroelectric among the least expensive off-the-grid solutions. Even micro hydro-generators fitting inside pipes to capture small amounts of power (10W), are available.
Compared to solar and wind power, which vary depending on the weather, hydroelectric power is relatively constant. Unless there is a drought, water flows, but the amount varies depending on the season. Like wind turbine/solar systems, complete hydroelectric packages are available from companies like Scott Hydroelectric Generators. Rated at 1500 Watts and able to produce 200W, these generators are sufficient for most off the grid homeowners, and come with options like batteries and inverters.
Some homeowners go off the grid and harness renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro and geothermal to reduce their carbon footprint, yet the majority seek energy self-sufficiency because they want to pay as little as possible for energy in the future.
While sources like solar and wind work well, they are dependent on nature, and a combination of different renewables is probably best for anyone wanting to put the power back into their own hands.