Are we still Americans if we unplug?
Power supply and appliances for successful off-grid living.
As gas and energy prices rise, and the climate continues to fluctuate outside of its natural cycle, the number of people striving for an off-grid lifestyle is at an all-time high. Whether it’s to break away from the dependence of on-grid reliance, to cut down on an ever-growing carbon footprint, or if it’s to become less traceable in an always-connected world, off-grid living can mean an endless amount of things; unplugging can mean something as simple as the use of a few clean-powered appliances, or it can mean the powering of an entire home with one of the alternative energy resources available. Regardless of the reason you choose to live off-the-grid or the form you choose to utilize, self-sustaining is easier than ever before.
When you consider all of the components that make up modern life, it might seem like surviving without a steady power-flow would be impossible. As Americans, we collectively use roughly twice the amount of power per-capita as other developed countries like Germany, and nearly ten times that of smaller countries like Cuba. Regardless of our personal lifestyles, we rely on the grid for the functioning of a surprising amount of our systems. Cell phones and Internet for the obvious ones, but also things like gas for our cars and propane for our devices – all of which rely on the grid for higher-up production.
But just because living completely off the grid isn’t easy in modern life, it doesn’t mean that steps can’t be taken to make sure it’s possible. To go full-out, an off-grid homeowner can choose to utilize one type of renewable energy resources or combine them all to power their home entirely. Considering that the monthly average amount of power used in an American home is 909 kWh, the system that you choose will have to be relatively large, with a dependable supply of power-source to keep your systems live all the time. There are three main options for off-grid power systems available, and a relatively new alternative that could stand to revolutionize pretty much any home – regardless of its power sourcing – once it hits the market.
OPTION 1: Solar Energy
One of the oldest and most recognized forms of alternative energy, solar power is a great option for off-grid living since the systems are readily available and the pricing is comparable due to its long-standing recognition. By utilizing photovoltaic solar panels along with an inverter and battery, you could power a home with no moving parts and little maintenance. The only catch is that the system only works when its resource is being actively supplied – meaning only when it’s sunny outside – so the systems can be spotty and unreliable in areas that aren’t full-sun. [Editors note: this is why you add a sizable battery bank to power your equipment, for those times when the sun isn’t shining.]
The systems range in size, anywhere from a few panels to an entire roof-full and then some, so pricing and materials depend of the output you need. For the average 909 kWh a month for instance, you would need about 24 panels on and around your home – which will set you back over $20,000. Considering that the average person in the United States spent around $3,000 a year on energy in 2012, it would only take six years for the system to pay for itself, and then after that you’d be free from a power bill virtually forever.
OPTION 2: Wind Power
Second in recognition and popularity to solar systems are wind powered ones; by simply having a wind turbine and a steady airflow, you can power a house with less effort than running a generator. Winds power takes a steady flow of wind and constant maintenance on its moving parts for reliable production, but if you live somewhere that’s known for being breezy, it’s a great way to go grid-free.
When it comes to powering a home with a wind turbine though, size absolutely matters. For the average household a 10,000 watt turbine is necessary for the output; the turbine alone is 23 feet, and when mounted to the necessary 100 foot tower, the consumed space is almost unrealistic. [Editor’s note: you could, of course, choose several smaller turbines.] A turbine of that size with that output level the cost ranges from $48,00 – $65,000 depending on the supplier; that means it would take anywhere from 16 to 22 years for the system to start paying for itself. If you live somewhere with heavy wind-flow and a lot of free land it might be a good option, but otherwise it might be more efficient to wait for the technology to improve a bit before converting.
OPTION 3: Micro-Hydroelectricity
The least recognized alternative-renewable energy source is easily the most efficient and reliable under ideal circumstances. A naturally occurring source of running water paired with a hydroelectric-system can generate between ten and 100 times the power of photovoltaic and turbine systems, for a similar initial investment. The biggest issue people face when deciding to try micro-hydroelectricity is finding a water source; not many people live near rivers and streams, and even then the supply might not be strong enough to create a usable amount of energy.
The type of system available to you depends largely on your water source; the closer you are to the water supply, the easier it is to install a system, and therefore cut down on costs. Pricing of micro-hydro can range anywhere from $20,00 to $100,000 depending on the variety of components you need, but if your source is good and your parts are reliable, you could be reimbursed in a little over six years.
OPTION 4: Tesla Home Battery
While it’s not an option to completely power your home, the Tesla home battery can help you drastically cut down on energy consumed by collecting and storing it at optimal times. What the stationary battery does is charge up overnight when energy rates are at their lowest, and then power your home through the day so that you aren’t relying on the power company during peak business hours. You could potentially save thousands on costs by essentially cheating the system, though the practice is entirely legal. If you already have a renewable, clean energy resource, the Tesla home battery could be used to store that efficiently, too.
If a power over-haul isn’t possible for your home, you could consider powering it part of the way with an alternative energy, or replace a few of your appliances with clean-energy run ones. With the popularity boom of clean technology came the advent of appliances that utilize the same systems, just on a smaller scale.
Solar, propane, and actual self-powering technologies have hit the market over the years, offering homeowners interested in an off-grid lifestyle devices ranging from refrigerators and range stoves, to total house lighting and security systems. There are even tutorials available that teach you how to convert your current appliances into solar-hybrid ones, for those that are mechanically inclined and are capable of taking on such a project.
Whether you’re harnessing an off-grid energy system for monetary purposes or your reasons are more ethically driven, the use of clean, renewable power is now practical and attainable. Up-front investments will always be higher than that of traditional grid-alternatives, but the money saved and emissions reduced overtime pay out exponentially. Given that our modern lives are so integrated and dependent on politically regulated and often misunderstood systems, the power to truly disconnect from everything and self-sustain is a celebrated one. Unplugging from the system that controls our country isn’t treasonous; it’s the very freedom to choose our own lifestyles that makes us American.