Once you get a taste of energy independence, your imagination might be kindled. Maybe you get your water from a well now and have no ties to a water company, and you start to wonder what other ties you can sever. Or you're meeting most of your electricity needs now with solar panels, and you wonder what extra push it might take to go totally off the electric grid.
About the advantages of living off-grid, blogger Jennifer Poindexter notes, "You are completely self-sufficient. If the power goes out, so what? It doesn’t impact you. If an emergency happens at the local city water plant, you won’t be impacted. Not to mention all of the money you won't be spending on monthly appliance bills."
With each passing year, living off-grid is shedding its connotations of hermits and outcasts, desert rats and hippies, crazy woodsmen and wild women. Alternative energy is mainstream. So-called "tiny homes" are fascinating. Name anywhere in the world it's possible to erect a house, and HGTV probably has a show about that place. People's interest is piqued in living and working remotely, and corporate investment is right behind.
Covering green tech investment for Forbes, Miriam Tuerk writes, "Corporate-level investments in off-grid solutions have rallied since 2014, as technological advancements and new business models in the sector address the problem that 3 billion people worldwide lack access to reliable electricity. As such, by 2030, the IEA estimates that more than 71 percent of new electricity connections will be via off-grid or mini-grid solutions."
For many, the drawbacks of living off-grid outweigh the advantages. It's a lifestyle many of us are happy visiting, like when we take the family camping for a week, but we're glad when we return home to seemingly endless running water and power, fast internet, and bright lights.
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Don't make the mistake of thinking "getting away from it all" means a permanent vacation. "The work you’ll put in to live off-grid is equivalent to multiple fulltime jobs that require expert time management skills," writes work-at-home mother and homesteader Victoria on her blog, the Modern Homesteader. "Procrastination has no place in off-grid living; seeds need to be sown in season, animals must be fed and milked on regular schedules, shelter and fences are needed to keep out predators, and overabundant harvests need to be preserved for colder months."
They're Called "Conveniences" for Good Reason
People trying to live completely off-grid must sometimes give up using washing machines, dishwashers, and air conditioners. While they can generate power to meet a baseline of household needs, they might have to schedule the running of large appliances and climate control systems. When your water must be pumped from a well or cistern, or you have to make sure you've caught enough water first in a catchment system, the limitations are even tighter.
Our ancestors could only dream of enjoying our large appliances, our HVAC systems, our easy pushbutton lives and instant gratification.
“The work you'll put in to live off-grid is equivalent to multiple fulltime jobs that require expert time management skills.”
Total Off-Grid Living Is Usually a Must, Not a Choice
Most people who live completely off-grid don't have a choice. Whether they are homesteading in Alaska or building their self-sufficient dream home on the edges of a dormant lava field in Hawai'i, people live off-grid because there is no grid.
"But just because there's a grid where I live doesn't mean I have to use it," you might say. To that we say you might save money by staying connected to the grid even while you meet your energy needs yourself. You might even make money. When you take into consideration the cost of electricity where you live versus the cost of a battery backup system for solar power, staying hooked up to the utility is often the better financial option. The grid acts as your virtual battery.
Staying hooked up to the utility is also how you can get paid for your home solar energy system's excess power. When you're off-grid, any excess energy you produce has nowhere to go once your battery (if you have one) is topped off. An interconnection with the utility, however, lets you make money from your excess energy.
The arrangement is called net metering. The electricity you buy from the utility is metered as always. Your home solar energy system's excess electricity runs off to the utility, and that flow is also metered. When your power bill arrives, the electricity you bought is offset by the electricity you sold, and you pay the difference: the net. Many states have good interconnection standards and net metering laws to promote this arrangement. You can't take advantage of net metering when you live off-grid.
Also, with some exceptions, the area where you live probably has electricity rates lower than $0.40 per kilowatt-hour, the accepted threshold for whether or not battery backup is cost-effective. Although battery technology continues to advance, no battery system today (not even the much-lauded Tesla Powerwall) lets you store and reuse energy for less than $0.40/kWh. Chances are that unless you live in Hawaii and Alaska, you can supplement your home solar energy production anytime with juice from the grid for $0.10 to $0.25.
With its aura of self-sufficiency and rugged independence, off-grid living has a romantic allure. Many of us occasionally fantasize about ditching the rat race and getting away from it all. Most of the time, however, we're better off keeping off-grid living in the realm of fantasy.
Still, it's good to know that you could live somewhere remote and supply your own water and electricity if you had to, process your own waste (outhouses, sceptic tanks, etc.), and never be reliant on the grid. And it's also good to know that you can live partially and comfortably off-grid to the extent you want and still reap benefits like emergency preparedness, and peace and quiet. In a future article, we will write more about how to get some of the benefits of off-grid living without giving up what makes your life easier.