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Does An Off Grid Solar System Make Sense For You?

Sidenote: I've taken a lot of heat from people for this article. Many folks accuse me of being a government propagandist for cautioning people about dropping tens of thousands to go off grid! Trust me - I've worked for the government in my CSIRO days - and I never want to take their money ever again! To show that I'm not totally prejudiced against batteries, I've also written another article about hybrid solar which, in my opinion, is a much better option for most Australians who want to decrease or remove their reliance on the grid. Now back to the programme:

If you are thinking of adding a mini solar power station to your roof, then at some point you'll probably ask yourself this question:

"Hmmm... Why do I need a connection to the electricity grid at all?"

Good question.

In theory, you can go 100% off the grid. Here's how it is done:

1) Buy yourself a big bank of batteries along with your panels.

2) Use these batteries to store any excess solar electricity when the sun is blazing.

3) Later in the day, when the sun is not beating down, you can get your electricity from that bank of batteries.

No grid required thank you very much!

 

grid connected solar power

 

This is great in theory... however there are 3 big problems with taking this off-grid route:

1) Your system will be 2 to 3 times more expensive because you need to buy:

a. Lots of batteries

b. A box of electronics called a charge controller to ensure the batteries charge and discharge correctly.

c. A secure shed to store the batteries.

d. Lots of time from an off-grid expert to design the system so you won't run out of electricity too often.

2) Every so often you will run out of electricity.

3) An off grid system is not a case of install-and-forget. They need a lot of maintenance. Expect to perform 10x the maintenance compared to a plain-vanilla grid connect system!

 

So having said that why would any one be crazy enough to plump for an off grid system?

Here are 4 reasons you might choose to go off grid:

1) There is no electricity grid where you live. Perhaps you live in the middle of the Simpson Desert like my Uncle Dave (seriously, he does!) or somewhere else equally remote. Hey, there's no shortage of places like that in this big ol' country of ours!

2) The nearest grid connection is a long way from your home and your local gougers electricity network wants to charge you an arm and a leg to connect you. In this case it may actually be cheaper to go off grid. Although be aware that a decent sized off grid system is going to start at approx. $25,000.

3) You are connected to the grid but you suffer frequent blackouts that really cause you grief. You want a system that can run when the grid is down and you understand that a standard grid connect solar system cannot operate when there is a power cut - unless it has a big and expensive battery backup system.

4) You're crazy. Your house is already connected to the grid. Blackouts aren't a problem, but you just like the sound of going off grid. You think it makes you more "independent" and protects you from the forthcoming apocalypse. In fact you've already got a big shed to put the batteries in. It's the same one where you stored all the canned food in readiness for the Y2K bug / end of the world last time round - and you don't mind spending $25k on an off grid system that would only cost $8k if it was grid connected. Or maintaining it 10 times more frequently than a grid-connect system. Or buying new batteries every few years. Because you are much closer to nature now you have cut that grid connection. . . Yeah - right on man! Peace!

I guess what I am trying to say is that unless 1) or 2) or 3) above applies, then it is kind of economically and environmentally insane to insist on an off grid solution.

Economically insane due to the cost being 3x higher.

Environmentally insane due to all those batteries you need to buy (and replace periodically) which contain a lot of really nasty chemicals.

For that reason, the rest of this guide is going to assume that you are thinking of buying a grid connect system for your home.

But - just because your system is connected to the grid that does not mean you can't enjoy having batteries too. A happy compromise called hybrid solar is available that has most of the benefits of off grid at a much lower cost. 

(And if you want to learn more about off-grid systems, I go into great detail about them on my blog.)