Many people are working toward the shared goal of sustainability. Declaring independence from the power and water grid, becoming self-sufficient and reducing your reliance on others are all massive steps, especially if you’re accustomed to the creature comforts modern living provides.
Generating enough power to keep your home running without having to rely on the local power grid is often a significant challenge, especially if you’ve invested in modern appliances and electronic devices. Solar power is a popular choice for off-grid sustainable energy, but it comes with unique caveats and challenges. What do you need to know before taking your homestead off the grid and switching to solar power?
What Does Going Off-Grid Mean?
The term “off-grid” gets thrown around a lot, especially when you’re talking about reducing your carbon footprint and living more sustainably, but what does it mean? Contrary to popular belief, installing solar panels on your roof to reduce your utility bills doesn’t mean you’re off the grid. The dictionary defines off-grid as “not using or depending on public utilities, especially the supply of electricity.”
The off-grid household aims to become as self-sufficient as possible. That means independently generating your water and power, and working to grow food and produce other supplies. Depending on your skill levels and persistence, that may not be entirely possible, but with utilities, going off the grid is often the most cost-effective way to live — once you get past the initial investment, of course.
The Concept of Net Metering
Before you leap into going entirely off the grid, it’s often a good idea to find a middle ground between the two states of being. Start by supplementing your existing power needs with solar, wind or other renewable sources. Most utility companies offer a practice called net metering that lets users contribute excess energy to the local power grid.
If you generate more power than you use during the year, the electric company will cut you a check at the end of the year. However unless you’re working toward going off the grid altogether, you may not have a solar array large enough to completely power your home. Net metering can be an excellent way to start bridging the gap between starting your sustainability journey and finally jumping off the grid.
How Much Power Do You Need?
Before you switch to an off-grid lifestyle, you need to understand how much power your household needs per year. The average residential household in the United States uses around 877 kilowatt-hours per month, but that will vary depending on everything from the types of appliances you have to the insulation quality in your home, to name a few.
Before you start making the necessary changes to go off-grid, take some time to go over your previous power bills to get an idea of how many kilowatt-hours of power you use monthly and yearly. Most utility bills will have a breakdown of this data included with each monthly statement.
You can also equip your home with smart power strips that allow you to monitor your power usage in real time, but this only applies to appliances you plug in. If you’re leaving your lights on all night or running the air conditioner for months at a time, that will also impact your energy usage. Combining the two sources can help paint a clear picture of the amount of electricity you’re using every day, month and year. Once you know that, you can move on to the next step.
Cutting Down Your Power Needs
Depending on where you live, you may need a massive solar array to generate enough electricity to keep your home running. While you can take up a stretch of roof or nearby lot with solar panels, the easiest way to ensure you’ll never see a blackout is to cut down on your overall power usage. You can accomplish this in several ways, including:
- Upgrading your appliances to energy-efficient or Energy Star-rated models, or eliminating the need for them.
- Keeping appliances and other devices unplugged when not in use.
- If you haven’t already done so, insulate your ceiling and walls. If they’re already insulated, have the existing installation inspected.
- Replace single-pane windows with energy-efficient double-pane alternatives. They’re more expensive, but they will prevent heat loss while still allowing you to take advantage of natural lighting.
These are only a few examples. Look closely at your average power usage and your home’s status and see what changes you can make to reduce your overall energy consumption. This step is smart to take regardless of whether you plan to go off the grid, because it shrinks your carbon footprint by reducing the amount of energy you use.
Do You Get Enough Usable Solar Hours?
The last question you need to ask yourself is whether you get enough usable solar hours during the year to justify the switch to solar power. In some areas, this might be a no-brainer. If you live in the desert, get 340 days of full sun a year and have no trees on your property, you’re going to get plenty of sunshine. If you live in one of the northern latitudes that gets reduced amounts of sun during the fall and winter, you may find yourself struggling to generate enough electricity to take yourself completely off the grid.
One useful tool for determining the answer to this question is Google’s Project Sunroof. All you need to do is plug in your address or your home’s coordinates. The site uses a database of satellite imagery to determine how much solar energy your property could generate every year. It also has details on how much it might cost to install solar on your home, when you might see a return on investment and how much money you could save over the next two decades.
Designing Your Solar Array
Next, you need to design your solar array. The information you’ve collected on power usage and viable solar hours will both be invaluable tools. Still, you will likely want to consult a professional installer or two to help you through the design process. Solar power comes from the photoelectric effect, a theory that won Albert Einstein his Nobel prize. Light consists of small subatomic particles called photons. When they strike a metal surface, like the one on a solar panel, they can knock loose some electrons.
Channeling these loose electrons into wires is how photovoltaic cells generate electricity from sunlight. You need to figure out how many of these panels you’ll need to create enough power to keep your lights on and your fridge cold. From there, you can determine whether to mount them on the roof, build a separate array on the ground near your home or some combination of the two.
The cost of solar panels and solar technology in general has been dropping steadily over the past decade or so. It’s easier and more affordable than ever to use solar energy to take your home off the grid, but it will still represent a substantial investment. On the positive side of this expenditure, you may qualify for grants or other tax incentives from the government for installing solar panels on your property, which can help offset some of the costs.
Batteries are Crucial
No matter where you live, nighttime will eventually fall. Relying solely on solar panels for power will leave you in the dark — quite literally — when the sun goes down. To offset this, you will need to install battery panels and packs to supplement your power usage after sunset or when clouds are obscuring the sky.
The Tesla Powerwall is probably one of the best-known options for battery packs, but it isn’t the only choice by any stretch of the imagination. Talk to your solar installer or do independent research to get a full picture of what’s available. Your goal is to ensure you have enough battery capacity to handle your needs overnight, and for an extended period if overcast weather conditions make it impossible to generate power.
Cutting the Cord for Good
We don’t recommend cutting the cord from the grid immediately after installing your solar array and backup batteries. You can strategize everything perfectly on paper, but as the saying goes, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Give your solar setup at least 12 months of testing time before you cut the cord for good. A one-year trial period will give you time to see how well it performs in all four seasons. This exploration becomes especially crucial if you live in one of the northern latitudes, where you’ll get less sun during the fall and winter months.
Feel free to give your system more than a one-year testing period. Give yourself plenty of time to tweak the system to ensure it meets your needs and provides enough power to justify separating yourself from the grid. Don’t rush into that transition. Give yourself plenty of time to ensure everything is working the way you want it to before cutting that cord.
Figure Out Your Return on Investment
Adding solar panels to your home tends to represent a massive investment for most homeowners. The technology is getting more affordable every year, but it can still cost thousands of dollars to purchase and install enough solar panels to keep the lights on. Instead of merely considering the upfront cost, you also need to look at your eventual return on investment.
Figure out how much money you’ll be able to save by going off the grid. Over the years, you’ll start to see how those savings add up until they eventually pay for themselves. It can take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to see your return on investment, but if you’re planning on going off the grid and declaring your independence from local utility companies, any return on investment you get in the long run becomes a bonus.
Do You Have Backup Options?
Finally, ask yourself this: Do I have alternative options if an extended storm system or blizzard covers my solar panels for days at a time? Going entirely off-grid removes your ability to fall back on your local electricity company if your system fails for whatever reason. Ensure you have backup in the event of a full-scale failure or outage.
Your fallback solution could be as straightforward as a gas- or diesel-powered generator or two you can use to keep the fridge running and other basics powered while you wait out the storms. Whatever you do, ensure you have an alternative plan to fulfill your homestead’s power needs if your solar array stops working.
Going Off-Grid With Solar
Solar power is one of the most accessible forms of green energy with currently available technology, making it a sought-after choice for anyone interested in going off the grid. Like most of this process, switching to solar isn’t a choice you can jump into immediately. Do your research. Have confidence you’re living in an area that gets enough usable solar hours. Test your solar setup for an extended period before you go completely off the grid.
Choosing solar energy is a bit of a journey, but it’s entirely possible. Take your time, don’t rush and make a backup plan if something goes wrong or breaks down. It’s always a better idea to prepare for any eventuality, especially if you can’t fall back on the local power grid.
Jane is the editor-in-chief of Environment.co. She is passionate about sustainability, gardening and homesteading.