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off-grid home solar panels

(image: Michael Coghlan)

Whether hoping to save money on utility bills, reduce the carbon footprint of a home, or just become less dependent on water and power companies, many people are turning to alternative means to live modern lives off the grid. But what are the costs, logistics, and implications of a truly off-the-grid home, and is it even possible with current technology?

Defining “Off the Grid”

When people speak of “off the grid” living, they’re referring to methods of disconnecting from the local electricity infrastructure that comes from power plants that supply energy to an entire region. There are several ways to achieve this, as well as the similar concept of disconnecting a home from municipal water systems, but each method has its own challenges.

Net zero building

One concept that has been around for a long time but is now just becoming viable is “net zero” construction — the installation of energy and water systems that generate enough to meet a building’s needs independent of the grid. Retrofitting existing homes with energy-generating fixtures like solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks for electricity storage, and water collection cisterns can cost a pretty penny.

The long-term costs tend to be lower for new buildings constructed with net zero designs in mind. For instance, take the Bullitt Center in Seattle. This office building has achieved energy and water independence using such methods and the ideas used to build it could easily find application in a single-family house.

Small grids

Net zero construction is the ideal for individuals and those who wish to live in more rural areas, but it’s often impractical or impossible for those living in urban areas. For apartment-dwellers or just those living in dense areas with strict building codes, retrofitting their homes with solar, wind, and water systems is simply not viable.

Small grid designs are a great alternative, though. As the name suggests, small grids are more localized versions of massive regional grids. Instead of generating an entire region’s power in a single plant far away, small grids generate power in a given community. That’s what some test communities like the Mueller neighborhood in Austin have done, installing a distributed solar array on multiple homes to create a shared, off-the-grid energy store.

Solar isn’t the only off-grid energy source; some dairy farms use methane capture systems to create community power from manure.

Existing energy companies and the new grid

With off-the-grid and small-grid alternatives gaining traction around the world, what do existing energy companies have to say? With fossil fuels becoming more controversial and potentially running out within the next few decades, the largest energy suppliers in the world — major oil companies — have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in alternative energy sources, such as Exxon Mobil’s algae biofuel program. For regional grid power suppliers, small solar and wind generators have actually been a boon. Many municipal power suppliers buy back excess energy produced by homes and businesses.

With current technology, it’s completely possible to live off the grid and even produce more power than a single home uses. The future of energy, though, may look more like small grid communities using alternative methods to supply neighborhoods rather than whole cities.

 

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Cate Morgan-Harlow

Cate Morgan-Harlow is an all arounder, writing about how-to, DIY, and design with gusto. She is a shadowy figure with a mysterious past.