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(image: Gray Watson)

Off-grid options for homes are becoming more and more viable. Used with solar and wind power, lithium ion batteries for home use are being pioneered today.

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Off-grid living is getting more and more popular as people want simpler lifestyles. They want to burn less fossil fuel, lower their carbon footprints, be self-reliant, save money on utility bills, and create energy security for themselves.

They can be rebellious, practical, and/or adventurous, close to civilization or on remote rural land. If you ask 100 people living off-grid why they chose that lifestyle, you will get 100 different answers.

Different strokes

There are various levels of off-grid living. Some people are not connected to the grid and fossil fuels at all. They have solar and wind power for electricity, use passive solar and wood for heat, and have a water catchment system for domestic use. They may have an outhouse or a regular bathroom with a septic system, both of which take them away from a municipal water department.

Others have solar PV tied to the power company (known as net-metered or grid-tied) to sell excess power back to the utility. They may have propane for cooking, heating water, and for space heating. They may have solar hot water with a wood heat back-up, as opposed to a gas or electric back-up water heater.

off grid house solar panels inspection

People will build what their needs and budgets allow. If they have to get a mortgage for their property, they will surely need some ‘conventional’ utilities.

Energy storage

Storage for electricity generated from wind and solar is a main part of off-grid living. Because the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow all day every day, the power generated needs to be stored.

The usual storage method is a bank of deep cycle batteries in a ‘battery room’. The bigger the generating system, the more batteries needed, and the more space needed to accommodate them. They are lead acid, so they do need to be maintained with watering, cleaning and charging. They weigh hundreds of pounds each, and cost hundreds of dollars, depending on quality and specs. You may need a couple dozen for a good-sized system, and they last about six years.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I think of battery banks as ‘clunky’, but Tesla is killing that reputation!

Tesla Energy

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, recently announced their new power storage system, called Tesla Energy. The Powerwall Home Battery is a sleek battery pack that mounts on a wall [Ed: be sure to watch the video on the linked page]. Thousands of lithium-ion batteries are connected together, and are insulated and have a cooling system. It is similar to the batteries in their electric cars, so the technology is not new and unfamiliar.

There are two sizes, one suitable for average daily use, and a heavy duty version for power back-up. When the power goes down, an off-grid home, even grid-tied for nighttime use, will have more than enough power for the dark hours.

Here’s a video from Wired Magazine on the pros and cons of the Powerwall Home Battery:

How the Powerwall battery is different

Lithium-ion batteries are cleaner than lead acid. There is no acid, making them safer. They need no dirty and time-consuming maintenance. They are surely cleaner to produce, meaning a more eco-friendly supply chain.

As many as nine can be installed and hooked up together to accommodate large generating systems. But one is sufficient for the average home. When they are delivered in late summer 2015, the cost will be $3000-3500 each, depending on the size.

This is the beginning of sensible, cost effective, long-lasting and sexy off-grid energy storage! The Tesla patent is open-source, meaning anyone can use it and build upon it. Musk is hoping other companies do this, so there is competition and several sources for good quality batteries for off-grid homes.

Efficient energy production

Energy made and stored at home is more effective, because no power is lost in transmission. It is estimated that 1/3 of all electricity generated is lost being delivered to plants and homes. Solar, wind and a Powerwall Home Battery sounds to me to be the most cost-efficient combination for off-grid living.

For grid-tied homes, the Powerwall lets the homeowner discharge extra power to the electric company when rates are high, while it charges when rates are low. This is called load shifting, and is an economic benefit that can offset upfront costs.

Upswing in off-grid living

The buzz is that these batteries will encourage more people to live off-grid. I have to admit, I have looked at off-grid homes to buy, and I have always been put off by the battery banks. They are ugly, dirty, and scream ‘high maintenance!’ They can psychologically kill the feeling of a beautiful home.

But if Tesla can change my mind, they can certainly change many others!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.