As the winter slowly melts away, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some reflections on our off-grid life over the last two winters. We get a lot of questions from friends, family and co-workers, often the same ones. Most commonly, “Are you guys completely off the grid? Yes. Can you sell the extra power back? No. Did you do it yourself? No, a trained solar contractor did it. Can you get through the whole winter in New Brunswick? Yes. Can you still heat with electricity? No, we use wood. Did it cost a lot of money? Yes, about 40k. Was it worth it? Absolutely.”
We had thought a lot generally over the years about getting solar panels. About four years ago, we lost our power about a half-dozen times over the winter and decided to really learn what it would take to make the switch. We also just generally like the idea of having energy independence and being free from power rate increases over time. The final motivation came from wanting to do the right thing environmentally and help others see what that life looks like.
It took a year to reduce our power consumption, change most of our high-demand electrical systems over to propane (dryer, stove and hot water), and secure the funding to go completely off-grid. We went from 800 kW (kilowatts) to just over 300 kW a month in the process. Our advice is to act like you are off-grid before you actually do it, so you can design your system properly.
It isn’t romantic, but propane (a by-product of the oil and gas industry) has helped us to make it all work. We have a 11kW propane generator, but it’s our goal to make sure that it runs as few times as possible. The generator is completely automated, it starts and stops on its own; so, we don’t have to worry about our freezer thawing out if the batteries are too low. We are sorry to say that it is nearly impossible to have a functioning system in New Brunswick without a propane or gas/diesel generator. For the first year of the transition (before hooking up the panels) we could at least cook during a power outage.
Most of the work has to be done by licensed professional electricians, to get access to building permits, loans and rebates. The hardest part about going off-grid is committing to spend the money. Then you just need to get a bunch of quotes and choose contractor that you like the most, the rest is done for you. We would recommend working with a contractor that will come to your house to look the site over and explain how you can reduce your energy needs before giving you a quote. Many of solar companies come up with quotes using Google Earth. For the average family in New Brunswick, you can size a system based on your current energy use with no reductions, but your quote will be shockingly high. That’s great for a contractor, but not for you.
Our system is around 9 kilowatts to support our 30-year-old, 1500 square foot house and all the modern appliances. With that we run everything that we need and heat our home with a forced-air wood furnace. We absolutely could not make our set-up run on base board heaters; it would be ludicrous to try! We use about three-cord of firewood each year. We could use a series of heat pumps if we wanted to. Some people live on much smaller systems (one to three kilowatts), but they tend to have very small homes and low energy requirements.
Since we are completely off-grid we need to store our energy in a giant battery bank to use during the night-time and during periods of low solar production. The price of panels has dropped to around a dollar per watt on average, but batteries are still by far the most expensive part of the package. The amount of solar gain available throughout the year was a pleasant surprise. While we have had to add some panels to the system to get it to be properly balanced for the winter and dark days, we can generally charge the batteries even on a cloudy day. We can also completely charge up on the shortest day of the year and this is important as off-grid systems are designed for the winter and not the summer periods in this hemisphere.
Our batteries can store enough energy to last around four dark days in the winter. In the summer we can go for weeks of overcast weather, because we still get a charge on cloudy days. As I write this, we are getting a really good spring downpour, even still the house is charging up and the battery is nearly full.
We are not tied to the grid at all, so the batteries are very important. It also means that we cannot get credit from NB Power on power produced. We chose to go off-grid rather than grid tied because we didn’t want to lose power anymore. Also, there is little incentive to ‘sell’ power to the grid because you only ever accrue credits, you’ll never get a check and you still pay service fees and HST on the power you use. This all added up to a decision to completely unhook from the grid, and I am still glad we did it. My parents have a grid-tied system and have not had to pay for power except for the above mentioned fees.
We no longer have a power bill and we don’t lose power anymore, but we still have to pay off our loan for setting the system up. The return on investment payback period is about 20 years (less than the 25 year life of the panels). If you are interested in saving money, you should look at being grid-tied, you lose a degree of energy independence, but the financial case is better and that is how most look at these systems.
To create better and more efficient heating energy systems, I have built three solar air heaters installed on the exterior walls of the house. This has reduced our heating costs by least 30%. The next phase of the heating upgrade will be to connect a series of solar thermal panels to heat our hot water with solar energy. We are hoping that this will reduce our propane consumption significantly, as we’ll be making hot water for free any day that it’s sunny. Eventually, we hope to tie the solar hot water system into an in-floor heating system to further reduce our wood consumption. It is nice that these systems can evolve over time and as money becomes available.
Our behaviour has naturally shifted along with the new system. We have a real-time display of how much power we are consuming and how well the panels are charging the system on our computer. We don’t waste power anymore because we can actually see and feel the impact on our system. We became even more power-aware and tuned into the natural cycles of sunshine and the weather because our energy needs are dependent on it. We do more and use more energy on sunny days and conserve energy on cloudy days. I often joked that since I’ve gone off-grid ‘I have become more like a plant’ that is tuned into the sun.
Drew Gilbert lives in Taymouth, NB and has been documenting the complete off-grid experience on YouTube at Solar Life.