Off Grid ?

I never really thought twice about the question: to be or not to be off-grid. I knew we were not going to pay for our electricity on a monthly bill for the rest of our lives, or at least for our stay at the round house on the prairie. At first glance, that appears to be a financial decision and there is an argument to be made in that connotation. To begin with, it’s expensive to get the power company to trench in 600 feet of power line to the house. If we assume $10/ft as an installed cost, this is $6000 just to put in the power line. This is a low estimate as just the wire and conduit to run 150ft (single phase 1/0 wire) from the barn to the house cost me over $900. Add a crew and some equipment costs and it is probably more like $20/ft. At any rate I figure at least $10,000US to get power run to the house. Then there is a $20/month cost just to be connected to the grid and then the actual metered cost of power.

My actual costs (in 2005 mostly) for my power system are these :

1600 watts of PV panels @ $3.00/watt $4800
Zomeworks tracker $1000
Batteries – used telco type $3000
Charge controllers $300
Inverter (Outback) $1700
Misc Breakers & boxes $300
Total cost (parts) $11,100

I was able to get some parts used, some I had to buy new. The purchases included above were made between 2001 and 2008. I made most of the racks myself and installed everything myself. I purchased other equipment and parts, but only those included above are currently installed and functioning.

This is a fairly small solar electric installation. It assumes a maximum use of 3kwh or less per day, which is less than 100kwh per month. In winter this gets difficult as it’s often cloudy, reducing PV yield and the cold makes the batteries less efficient. This double whammy means I occasionally make use of a gas powered generator to bump the batteries up in December and January. I intend to supplement charging with a small wind generator at some point to reduce that non-green activity. In the summer, additional daylight hours give more than enough power and we can run a small air conditioner during the day if we desire without an issue.

In order to keep electrical use down we utilize passive solar, wood and propane for heat, propane for cooking and hot water (soon to be solar hot water) and have invested in a SunFrost refrigerator for efficient food storage. The water well is on a separate solar electric system with 200 watts of dedicated PV. We utilize laptops for computing and use compact florescent lighting.

The initial cash investment is roughly the same for on and off-grid in this particular case. The price of grid power is made more expensive by the distance from available power. This will certainly not be the case for everyone. For some it will be worse. My decision to locate the panels and batteries 150 ft from the house cost me extra, but is not reflected in the above figures. Nor is the eventual cost of replacement batteries.

In summary I’d have to say that the overall cost comparison for our setup is a wash. Cost is not the determinant that it may initially appear to have been. Note that I live in Colorado and there are no state incentives for putting this equipment into place. The incentives that exist currently did not exist when I did the installation. The current incentives also are tied into and administered by the power companies. So even though they would pay a portion of the installation cost, you would by necessity be tied to the grid, and thus the ongoing grid connection charge. Not an either/or thing in that case.

So why be off grid then if it doesn’t cost less ? In spite of what we think, we honestly don’t make most of our decisions on a strictly financial basis. No one would every purchase a new car, any kind of jewelry, a home on the seashore or any number of other things if everything was decided strictly on a financial basis. But the individual reasons are personal. Your reasons may be different from mine, and you may not make the decisions I have at all.

I see great value in being independent of constant payments to someone else for basic necessities. I don’t like having to pay for power that is produced by polluting our air, water and ground and so I choose to live differently. I paid more up front in time and money to have peace of mind and a measure of freedom. I also like to do things myself to provide food, housing and energy. Maybe having parents and grandparents who lived through the great depression has something to do with it. Why put yourself in a vulnerable position if you have the ability to avoid it ? The current economic situation makes it likely that having a consistent income may be rare in the future.

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