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Best Off-Grid Power: Solar, Wind, Hydro or Something Else?

When people consider going off the grid, there are two primary challenges they find themselves facing: finding safe and sustainable sources of power and water. A few decades ago, doing this meant you were leaving all modern creature comforts behind in favor of a simpler existence. Today, however, you’ve got plenty of renewable energy options.

It is important to note that not all of these methods will work everywhere. You wouldn’t expect to rely solely on solar power in Alaska where it’s dark for half the year, would you? With that in mind, here is a renewable energy guide to help you make the most informed decision if you decide to go off the grid.

Solar Energy

Best Regions: Southeast, Southwest, Midwest. Usable in other places if supplemented with battery packs.

Solar power has become nearly synonymous with renewable energy. While it isn’t the only option out there, it’s what most people think of when they start considering off-grid or renewable energy sources. The fact of the matter is that while you may get plenty of sunny days anywhere in the country, it isn’t always enough to power your off-grid home — at least, not entirely on its own.

Solar energy is ideal for places with a lot of sun, though modern panels can collect energy through some cloud cover as well. If you’re considering solar power for your off-grid home, consider the length of your days, as well as the direction your roof faces if you’re using roof-mounted panels. Also, consider the average amount of sunlight you get during the year.

Google launched a tool a few years ago that uses Google Earth satellite imagery to determine if solar power is a good investment. Project Sunroof uses your address to decide whether you get enough usable sunlit hours during the year to justify installing a solar system. If you’re looking at off-grid locations, you may need to hunt down the coordinates if these sites have trouble finding your home.

The exact number of panels you need will depend on several variables, including:

  • The type of solar panel
  • How much energy your household uses on an annual basis
  • How many usable solar hours your home receives during the year

If you’re currently connected to the grid, just look at your electric bill to determine roughly how much power you use every month. You can figure out your daily usage by taking that number and dividing it by the average days of the month.

Make sure you talk to an experienced solar installer before you start making decisions. It’s easy to make a mistake that could leave you without power when you need it most.

Wind Energy

Best Regions: Northeast (costal and mountains), West (costal and mountain passes), Midwest (open plains), Northeast (costal and mountain passes), Southeast (coastal only).

On a smaller scale, wind power can be a viable option for off-grid property owners. You won’t be installing one of the massive industrial turbines you see in giant wind farms, though. Instead, you’ll want to invest in smaller systems that are easier to maintain while still providing plenty of renewable off-grid energy.

While it might seem like you have enough wind to power your home, the challenge with this type of renewable energy isn’t in wind speed, it’s with consistency. If the blades aren’t spinning, the turbine isn’t generating electricity, and you’ll be in the dark before too long.

Off-grid setups in coastal areas are ideal for wind power. Mountaintops might not get the most consistent wind, but mountain passes are the perfect place to set up a turbine or two to power your home. Houses located in the Midwest, especially in open plain areas, are also great candidates for wind power.

Residential wind turbines can be expensive, setting you back upward of $48,000 for a single turbine. However, if going off the grid in an area that is ideal for wind power is your goal, it’s worth the investment.

Hydroelectric Energy

Best Region: Any, as long as the home is located near flowing water. Will need to be supplemented in climates where water tends to freeze.

Water is the oldest form of mechanized power in the world. We’ve been tapping into the movement of water for millennia, through things like waterwheels and mills that gave us the ability to do everything from make flour to smelt steel. Today, we’ve moved beyond wheels and have harnessed the strength of flowing water to generate electricity. We build massive dams to block rivers and use their energy to power our cities.

Of course, most hydropower is massive, industrial and very much on the grid. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an option if you decide to go off-grid — just that you’ll need to think outside the box if you want to tap into the power of flowing water.

If you have any sort of running water on your property, microhydropower systems are an option for off-grid renewable energy. Industrial-sized systems can generate up to 100 kilowatts of electricity, but a smaller, 10-kilowatt system is usually more than sufficient to power a large home.

You have the option of purchasing a commercially available turbine and generator set or designing your own. Make sure the generator matches the horsepower and output capability of the turbine. In the U.S., you will also need an inverter to convert the direct current created by the turbine to the alternating current standard homes and appliances use.

You can install an old-school waterwheel, but they’re bulky and inefficient, even if they look pretty cool sitting on your property.

Geothermal Energy

Best Regions: West, Midwest and non-continental areas like Alaska and Hawaii.

We live on an active volcanic planet. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are just part of life on Earth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use them to our benefit, especially if going off the grid is your goal. We can tap into that volcanic energy in areas which experience a lot of seismic activity. The U.S. has already started tapping into the country’s massive geothermal stores, with an installed capacity of more than 3,300 megawatts spread across eight states in the West and Midwest.

While your system might not generate that much power, a smaller-scale geothermal plant on your property could help you tap into the heat and energy that exists right below our feet. This allows you to get off the grid without worrying about the consistency of sources like solar or wind energy.

This sort of renewable energy is best suited to areas that receive a lot of seismic activity. Places near the Pacific Rim, as well as homes in the Midwest, can all utilize geothermal energy. In the rest of the country, you may be able to use stored heat below the ground on your property to heat your home, but it is generally not enough to produce any appreciable amounts of power.

The tradeoff with going off the grid in regions where geothermal energy is a viable option is that they are prone to seismic activity, which can be dangerous. You can prepare for the eventuality of an earthquake or even volcanic eruption in places like Hawaii but going off the grid is a lot easier when you can drill into the earth and use the available heat to power your home.

Biomass/Biogas Energy

Best Region: Any, with some conditions.

This is an ideal energy source for any homestead that is already raising crops and livestock. It’s a solution that’s often offered to large industrial farms as an alternative to paying to have animal waste hauled away. Biomass, as its name suggests, converts organic waste into electricity by burning it in incinerators. This can be problematic for small homeowners because, in addition to needing the incinerators, you also must install scrubbers to remove pollution from the smoke coming from the chimneys.

Small-scale biomass burning is used in many modern homes as a source of fuel for furnaces, but they generally aren’t designed to generate any electricity.

Biogas, on the other hand, converts animal waste into fuel. In addition to helping you get off the grid, this is one of the best options for the environment. Plus, in a crisis scenario, biogas can often be used as fuel for diesel vehicles, making it easier to get around if gas stations aren’t accessible.

In a pinch, biogas also works in traditional diesel generators. They are an option for powering your home, though they tend to be fairly fuel-intensive and aren’t a viable solution in the long run for off-grid properties. As we said, though, they can be a useful backup if something breaks down or foul weather damages your solar panels.

Biomass was even being used in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. The biomass units were designed to burn hurricane debris, providing 50 kW of electricity and 120 kW of thermal energy while helping residents clean up after the storm. If you have a lot of organic waste, either in the form of farm and animal waste, debris from clearing land, or other types of organic waste, biomass and biogas energy can help dispose of it.

Making the Right Decision for Your Off-Grid Home

Choosing the right renewable energy source for your home is a tough decision. A lot needs to go into this choice, and the region where you live will play a large role in it. Some types of renewable energy will work better than others in different areas of the country. Solar power works best in large, flat areas that have long days and lots of clear weather. Wind power is ideal for coastal regions, mountain passes and large, flat plains.

It’s important to note that you might want to work with more than one of these energy sources. Solar and wind complement each other well, as do wind and tidal power. Having a backup is always a good idea if something breaks down. You might have to cut back a little bit, but you won’t be completely without power.

Going off-grid is a long and involved process, but it can be incredibly rewarding to set up a home where you don’t have to rely on the grid for your utilities. Make sure you’re prepared and choosing the right renewable energy resources for your region of the country.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

[Note: This was a guest post.]

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