Two weeks ago I wrapped up installation on a medium sized off-grid solar system on my remote property in south-central Montana. I felt my story is worth telling, because it was easier and cheaper than I thought it would be, and because small scale solar and energy storage will solve a lot of problems in the long run.
While I didn’t have much of a choice but to use battery storage (the nearest power line is five miles away), in getting to understand my system I’ve realized the value staying off the grid. We can all agree that ramping up solar and wind to replace fossil fuel power generation is critical for healthy communities and the global climate. But consider this: if you are planning to go solar, but are having difficulties with your utility over installing a grid-tied solar system (also called a “net meter” because you only pay for the net amount of electricity you take from the grid after your solar inputs are deducted per month), a few thousand dollars more could get you a battery-based system and you’ll never need to worry about utility uncertainty again. Not only that, but you won’t have to pay a utility connection fee, which in some places is high enough to make a difference.
For most people with adequate southern exposure, going off-grid is entirely reasonable, though it gets more difficult if you are running large electric thermal loads like baseboard heating, electric ranges or large electric water heaters. In that case, you’ll either have to substantially increase your solar system size, or replace these electricity-guzzling appliances with something else. For hot water heating, this is easily done with passive solar hot water heating panels; for space heating, it can often be done with wood heat, passive solar architecture or retrofit, propane or natural gas, and any combination of the three.
Another option for large electric consumers is to create a hybrid system in which you generate and store much of your own power, but you are also connected to the grid to power certain loads or charge your batteries if necessary. This could eventually allow for the entire grid to be 100% renewable, because the intermittency of grid-scale renewables would be balanced out by users having their own energy storage. You’d be in charge of generating and storing energy for your critical, time-sensitive loads, and the rest would be powered as allowed by the grid’s renewable capacity, even if it’s not on all the time.
More Renewable Energy
Currently, renewable energy as a whole accounts for about 10% of total energy consumption in the US (source). Of this amount, biomass and hydro power – sources relatively limited in their growth potential – account for 78% of all renewable energy production. Wind and solar – sources that have incredible growth potential yet remain highly intermittent – currently account for about 2.2% of total US energy consumption. Clearly, there is a long way to go until they provide for the majority of our energy needs, including the transportation sector.
What I’ve learned installing my own system is that eliminating (or reducing) grid dependency is not as difficult or expensive as I thought. While I currently rent a house and cannot install my system on a rental home, I do intend to build or buy a permanent home somewhere at some point – perhaps on my existing property but maybe elsewhere — and since I already own the system, it will become a fixture of my future residence whether it be on the grid or off.
Getting some professional help with the wiring.
The top question I hear is how much does it cost to go off-grid? For me, the entire system, including delivery, all components (mostly American made), and having it wired by a professional was about $9,500 after the federal 30% tax credit for residential renewable energy. I’ve heard of installation companies charging up to $25,000 for similar systems, but much of what they charge is for design consultation, markups on the equipment, and significant hours for labor to do what many can do themselves. If you’re like me and can do basic construction, then consider mounting the panels and running conduit yourself.
My solar panels produce 2.4 kilowatts in direct sun, and my battery bank can store about 20 kilowatt-hours of electricity. The less you discharge you battery bank, the longer the batteries will last and my hope is that they will last 15 years so I try to limit my power use to five kilowatt hours each day, which is comparable to efficient households. In the high-desert climate of south central Montana, the solar panels seem to produce a significant surplus over what the batteries can store, so running major loads during the daytime is preferable to doing so at night (such as charging an electric car). I could double the battery bank size for an additional $3,000 and not have to worry much about that. Similarly, if you live in a cloudy, stormy place, you could double the size of your solar array for about the same amount.
After having been through this process, I was surprised how easy it was. The state of Montana financed the system under their Renewable Energy Revolving Loan Program at 3.25% interest, fixed for 10 years, as will many states these days. The loan was easy to get, with minimal paperwork and the entire process taking less than one month.
So there you have it. Are you interested in going solar? Go online and check out some systems. I had a wonderful experience dealing with Wholesalesolar.com, but there are many others out there that can guide you through the process and get you started. And I’d be happy to talk with you as well about what worked for me – you can reach me at pdronkers at earthworks.org.