So, You Wanna Live Off-Grid?

Categories: On The Farm

Have you dreamed of “going off the grid”—being independent of the electric utility? It’s a lifestyle full of benefits and responsibilities. But before you consider it further, let’s take a look at what it really means, and figure out if it’s the destination you want. This video touches a lot of subjects to consider before going off grid. It has a list of points that are good advice before taking the plunge.

Why Off-Grid?

It’s important to clarify the terminology. When I hear people say “off-grid,” I often assume that they mean they want their home to be renewably powered with independent systems that make energy on-site. However, when I pry further—and ask if they actually want to cut the cord to the utility, the answer is usually no.

In the renewable energy (RE) industry—and in this article—when we say “off-grid,” we mean that literally. The phrase refers to systems that have no connection with the utility grid, and must make all the electricity necessary for the home, business, or application.

Going off-grid is possible and practical in many cases, and the experience of thousands of early RE pioneers and recent off-gridders confirms that. But many people who toss out the phrase have a fairly romantic idea floating in their minds. They imagine having no utility bill, and energy and life being free and easy. The reality is that most utilities supply electricity at a modest cost, and if you take on their job, you have to play all the roles that the utility plays.

Identifying your motivation for going off-grid can clarify your goals and help you understand if the reality will please you. Your specific goals may affect whether going off-grid makes the most sense, and they also may affect the type of system you design and how you live with it. Common off-grid motivations include:

  • Environmental concerns—a desire to use less energy and make as much as possible from renewable sources;
  • Independence from the electrical utility for philosophical reasons or to eliminate vulnerability from utility outages
  • Political/social values, such as taking responsibility for your energy impacts;
  • Cost—depending on how far you are from the grid, it may make economic sense to stay disconnected.

On-Grid RE

I urge most folks to use the utility grid with their RE system. More than 40 U.S. states have some form of net metering available. This means that a large majority of U.S. utility customers can “bank” any surplus energy their PV system produces with their local utility, and use the credit to pay for future utility electricity usage.

Almost all U.S. homes have grid service available, and it’s surprisingly reliable. Some locations may be less reliable, and it makes sense to find out how often your region has outages, and how long they typically last. If having completely uninterrupted electricity is important to you, a battery-based grid-tied system could be the best of both worlds—renewable electricity with utility outage protection. These systems provide electricity (usually for dedicated, not whole-house, loads) when the grid is down.

The most common grid-tied systems do not use batteries, and therefore do not have outage protection—their one disadvantage. Their advantages include lower cost, less complexity, lower maintenance, lower environmental impact, higher operational efficiency, and a longer overall system life, since there are no batteries to replace and fewer components.

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