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Batteries solar panels house off grid

Published on August 18th, 2011 | by Silvio Marcacci


Living off the Grid: Not Just for the Amish Anymore

August 18th, 2011 by  

Renewables and energy storage keep the lights on in this off-grid home

Whether you’re reading this on your computer or mobile device, you needed electricity from the grid to power at least one device in the process. Those electrons come from far-flung power plants, across miles of transmission lines, and out of a plug in your wall. This process may seem like just another part of life, but it’s not the only option.

Some people have taken matters into their own hands, and haven’t paid a power bill in years. energyNOW! correspondent Patty Kim met some of the estimated 180,000 families across North America using clean energy technology to become self-sufficient and enjoy all the comforts of modern life, off the grid. You can watch the full video below:

Living “off the grid” may conjure images of counter-culture hippies or the old-fashioned ways of the Amish, but a growing number of people generate their own electricity and live in the lap of luxury without ever paying a utility bill. They’re called “off-gridders” and they look just like you and me.

Bill Kemp, an energy consultant and author of “The Renewable Energy Handbook,” decided to go off-grid when he found out running power lines to his new home outside Ottawa, Canada would cost a small fortune. Instead, Bill and his wife Lorraine decided to invest in renewables and energy storage. “A lot of people thought we were just plain crazy,” said Kemp.

Twenty years later, the Kemps are showing those doubters how off-grid living is done. Solar panels on their home and barn combine with two large rotating solar arrays to produce over 2,000 watts of energy, and a small wind turbine chips in 1,500 additional watts. On cloudy and windless days, a backup half-biodiesel, half-diesel generator can provide power.

All this renewable energy constantly charges a bank of batteries in their basement, storing excess electrons and keeping the lights on well after sundown. Maintenance is easy – all that’s required is distilled water for the batteries a few times a year. “It would be pretty tough to lose power here,” said Kemp. But the total cost for their system is no small change: $40,000 dollars.

But the Kemps aren’t the only ones finding success off the grid. Central Oregon is home to a thriving off-grid community of 300 homes. The Three Rivers Recreational Area is a gated community made up of million-dollar mansions, trailers, a fire hall, and even a yurt (traditional Mongolian home). “There’s nothing we do not have here,” said Elaine Budden, a Three Rivers resident. “Wireless Internet, washer/dryer, refrigeration – we have everything.”

Three Rivers was born of necessity, nearly 50 years ago. The 4,000-acre community was founded as a campground with individual lots for sale – but back then being off the grid wasn’t a choice. “There was no power here,” said Lorne Stills, a son of the community’s founders. “We had propane lights that put out about as much light as a cigarette lighter.”

But the community grew and was flourishing by the late 1970’s. Most homes and public buildings have their own solar systems, and wind turbines help meet power demand when the sun isn’t shining. Even though Three Rivers is 25 miles from the nearest Starbucks or supermarket, residents are happy. “The peace and quiet, the stars at night, the wildlife, we thought, ‘you know, we can make this work,” said Budden.


About the Author

Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy and climate policy public relations company based in Oakland, CA.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks. Yeah, I’ve written on that microhydro book in the past: http://cleantechnica.com/2010/10/15/new-microhydro-book-is-the-microhydro-book/

  • KarenLLew

    I have a friend in Alaska who designed and helped build her home atop a mountain in southcentral Alaska. She has solar power and wind power, with a backup generator, to power all her needs. It is amazing, and I have always been in awe of her. This article and video brought it all back to me. Plus, you can’t beat the silence and the presence of wildlife and the views from her home.

  • Shecky Vegas

    Damn. Makes me want to buy a house!

  • Anonymous

    Next [stupid] / [ naive] question. The generators that I know people locally buy for times when ice weighs down the above ground wiring, are noisy. Are the generators that you use reasonably quiet or are there ways to disguise that? I love your story!

    • Shecky Vegas

      Geri –
      That’s going to depend on whether the generator is gas, diesel or propane fueled. Also the size involved is a key noise factor.
      The best thing to do is go to a lumberyard/home warehouse store and ask for a demonstration of each type. Always keep in mind the generator is usually out in the garage or a shed, away from where you would normally hear it. And remember you have to run some piping to get rid of the exhaust!

    • Anonymous

      I’m currently using a Duracell (Costco was selling them cheap) generator that puts out 3500 watts. It’s quite enough that I have to listen to hear it if the radio is on and the windows closed. Since I hardly ever run it except in the winter the windows are always closed. ;o)

      I’ve also got a 2500 watt Honda. I can’t hear it run inside the house. I have to go to the door to make sure it hasn’t run out of gas. (I like having a spare gen since I do get snowed in for long periods some winters.)

      I did have a louder generator and I simply pointed the exhaust toward a bale of straw. That quietened it right down.

      My house is well insulated. I framed it with 2x6s so that I could put more insulation in the walls. My windows are all double panes. Keeping in/out the heat/cold also keeps out noise.

      If you want a quite generator some of the small Hondas are very quite. But a little pricey.

      If you’re trying to keep everything in your freezer frozen, your big screen on and run your Jacuzzi when the power goes off in suburbia a little gen won’t cut it. For off the grid a small generator is fine. You just run it more hours.

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  • Chris

    Funny how a lot of articles or news pieces about renewable energy focus on the initial cost.. and not that 40,000$ (and presumably some maintenance costs for battery replacement every 7-10 years) compared against the equivalent electricity / gas / oil bills for a similar period.

    • Anonymous

      Good point. I’ve been thinking the same recently and could probably shift how I write about such things as well.

    • Anonymous

      Perhaps what you’re missing is the cost of hooking to the grid. If lines have to be run even as much as a quarter mile then solar systems can be cheaper.

      I don’t know what current costs are but ten years ago the utility company in our part of the country wanted $16/foot to run new service. That works out to $21,120 for a quarter mile hookup.

      Buying a piece of property away from the grid often means that you can get a very much nicer place for far less money. Many people want everything in place when they buy and fewer customers can mean much lower prices.

      I was able to buy a very attractive piece of land because it was far from existing power lines. Had the grid been at the property line I could never have afforded what I got.

      I avoided a $300,000 grid hook-up charge. Grid in place and this property would have been around a half-million, something beyond my financial ability.

      My entire off the grid system, including batteries and backup generator cost only $10,000.

      My batteries cost me less than $2,000 every 5-8 years. Take the low end of life span and we’re looking at under $35 per month.

      Throw in a couple hundred dollars a year for backup generator fuel and about $15 per month for propane (cooking and water heating) and I’m up to no more that $70 per month for utilities.

      So, I saved a major bundle on either land or hook-up costs. I save on property taxes because my purchase price was much lower than what a wired property would have cost.

      I live in an area where power goes out multiple times every winter. Lots of trees and hearty winter storms take down power lines. Along with the normal number of drunks/careless drivers who topple poles.

      I’ve never been without electricity in over 20 years.

      • Anonymous

        Bob, i want to visit you! 😀

        • Anonymous

          Come on over. I’m finishing the guest bedroom floor tomorrow.

          • Anonymous

            OK, i’ll hop on the next flight. Should just take me about 27 hours to get to your place, i think 😀

          • Anonymous

            That would probably get you to San Francisco. It’s another six hours by road from there. Or an expensive flight and a couple hours driving.

            If you’re going to be in the area just let me know.

          • Anonymous

            oh, i added a few hours, but guess it would be more like 30 or 31. well, if i am ever in the area, i surely will 😀

      • Chris

        Hi Bob, that’s not at all what I meant. I’ve been saving money for a couple years and doing a lot of reading in order to prepare myself to buy property and move off-grid as well.

        My comment was more an observation that almost all the articles I’ve read throw out a very large (presumably scary) number about the upfront costs, but never put it into perspective… not so much about being off-grid.

        More in terms of 40,000$ system 20 years ago.. is how much in today’s dollars?
        How much would the same system cost now (highlighting how much technology has advanced)?
        How much would the heating / cooling / etc (the gas, oil, electricity bills I mentioned earlier) of a similarly sized, equipped, etc. house (on-grid) have cost over the same period?

        I’d love to see your place, it sounds very much like what I’m aiming for!

        I live near a major city… and I still have 5-10 second power outages regularly – just long enough to force all the clocks to reset! 😉

        Thanks for the information, it helps keep me motivated to do it! All my friends think I’m nuts.

        • Anonymous

          I’ve cut my power usage down pretty slim. CFLs, rarely more than two on at one time. My computer is a netbook with an external monitor. I’ve got an 18 cuft standard refer. I use a boombox for my stereo.

          When the sun is shining I do my laundry and pump water up hill (about 80′ up) from well to storage tank. Then I’ve got gravity feed water whenever I want it without having to call on my batteries to do any pumping.

          Wood heat, propane kitchen range, propane tankless water heater. Work in my wood shop on sunny days and sit by the fire on days when it’s cold and dark. Hang my clothes outside. Don’t need AC here, haven’t even put screens on all the windows this summer, haven’t turned on the fan for a couple of years.

          I cut firewood off my property. There’s far more storm-downs and thinning trees than I can ever use. I probably use two gallons of gas and spend ~$18 for chain sharpening per year. In other words, almost nothing for heat.

          I do all I want to do with 1.2 kW of panels. In the summer my batteries are often full before noon. (Mid-afternoon if I pump water or do laundry.)

          You can get panels for under $1.50/watt. I paid just under $4/watt ten years ago (and that was a great price then). So panels for under $1,800.

          A charge controller for as little as under $100. More if you want more features. An inverter from under $1,000 to as much as $3,000, again depending on your needs.

          Batteries, a dozen golf cart batteries for under $2,000.

          A few hundred more for panel racks, wire, meter, circuit breakers/disconnect switches.

          As little as $400 for a generator that will last you a few years, more like $1,000 for a small Honda which should last longer.

          I could replace my setup for under $10k, today’s prices. Panels have come down a lot.

          I can’t imagine that anyone around here has a $40k system. Some might be $15k or a bit more. A few people have a good wind site and a small turbine and tower can set you back $5k. Others have micro-hydro which is quite affordable. $40k would get you power for a couple of big screen TVs, a massive side-by-side refer, that sort of stuff.

          You do need to be realistic about moving ‘way out there’. There are essentially no jobs, people around here are creative and often make their own jobs. But if you get out far enough so that commuting to ‘town’ is not reasonable then property prices are a lot lower.

          • Anonymous

            Bob, we should really do a case study post on you 😀 (seriously!)

  • I enjoyed reading your article. Thanks!

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