We Rednecks are an independent bunch. We like to do it ourselves and owe it to nobody, and this holds true when we start using solar and wind energy. So it’s not surprising that for many of us, the idea of living off the grid is attractive. But before you invest in enough batteries to light up your homestead like a Wal-Mart parking lot, it pays to stop and reason out exactly what your needs and priorities are. The most common reason to be off grid is location. If you’re way out in the boonies, you may not have a choice. Here are some other things to consider:
Efficiency – When your batteries are full, they’re full. No matter how hard the wind blows or the sun shines, you can’t harvest anything more. A grid connection allows you to harvest all the power from your system. When you have extra, you sell it to the grid so someone else can use it. When sun or wind is scarce, you tap in and buy some back.
Cost – Solar equipment is expensive. You can run a few lights with a car battery, but if you’re serious about powering your home you’ll probably want a set of good-quality deep-cycle batteries. These can set you back $300-$1,500 apiece. You can expect to have to replace them about every 7 years – maybe longer with good care. If you have batteries you’ll also need a charge controller – another $150-$600 or more. Connecting to the grid allows you to dispense with batteries altogether if you choose.
Convenience – Off-grid systems require constant monitoring. Flooded lead-acid batteries are long-lived and cost-effective, but they need frequent maintenance. Living off-grid also requires you to adjust your energy consumption according to available power. If you have a few days without much sun or wind, you may have to ration your power use or supplement with a generator.
Self-reliance – No doubt about it, when you’re off-grid you’re not at the mercy of the power lines. There is something to be said for being able to offer your neighbors water, for instance, after a tornado goes through and they have no power to their pumps.
Politics – You may have strong feelings about your power company. You’re entitled to them; just don’t let them act against your own best interests.
Ask nearly any PV installer, and they’ll tell you it makes sense to connect to the grid. But at the end of the day, it’s a decision you need to make for yourself. And don’t forget – it’s not an either-or decision. You can grid-connect and have an emergency battery back-up, too – the best of both worlds!