Independent Power - Living Off the Grid for 17 Years, and Loving it!
When we first purchased our home here in the country, we were shocked at the cost of getting power to our home. However, since I had the technical background and we both liked the idea of eliminating a monthly utility bill we decided to build a solar/wind power system. We wanted to use both a large wind turbine and solar panels to provide power, and have a generator for emergency or backup power in the case of equipment failure or uncooperative weather..
What we have ended up with is a power system that has been far more reliable than the public utility. We've also learned a lot about what to do and what not to do in the process. So I'm going to outline some important information for those who like the idea as we do. There are important things we've learned from this process that could save you money and make the experience a lot more pleasant.
The cost of Solar Panels (PV) has dropped dramatically. When we built our first system it cost $5/watt for panels and the price has dropped to about $2/watt or less in quantity. This is huge, and means that solar power is now cheaper than ever before!
Costs and Benefits
We could have cut our costs by using more energy efficient appliances, using propane more, and using less power in general. However, my thinking is that I wanted to live a 'normal' life, and I'm more excited about the increased reliability of my power more than eliminating monthly costs entirely. We set a minimum goal for power that we could live with in an emergency, and now we're focused on other home improvement issues. After we've met those goals we'll refocus on our power and push for complete independence.
The secret in doing things like this is to take a step at a time. There's an old saying that goes "By the inch it's cinch, but by the yard it's hard". My sentiments exactly. First make sure the emergency is covered and then grow from there. Don't try to do too much at a time, when you do that you make the growth process stressful and you often feel like a failure when you're objectively making great progress..
How much you spend is under your control, but it makes sense to buy quality. Trying to shorten that path to your goal by buying sub-standard equipment won't work out well, believe me. You can save substantially and still get quality equipment. You have to have quality equipment to make everything work reliably.
Not Everyone Can Do This
If you live in an apartment or similar situation you might not be able to do much except prepare properly for cold, have a 72 hour emergency kit, a battery operated radio, a good flashlight, and make sure you have at least one phone that doesn't rely on AC power to operate so you can call for help. Renewable energy installations require some space, home ownership, and cooperative building and zone ordinances.
Diy solar is a rewarding hobby. There's something magical about cellecting power from the sun. I really like what we've done here. However, in order to build and maintain a system there is a small but important amount of time that needs to be set aside for monthly water checks on the batteries, etc. Doing it yourself will also save you a lot of money installing your equipment.
However, if your not handy with do-it-yourself projects you should consider getting help. Setting up a system is mostly just a matter of following directions, but some good people are just not technically savvy enough to attempt these things without a mentor, physical help, or training. Most people who sell the equipment are more than willing to walk you through the process, and are available to service your system if you're not up to doing it yourself.
But If You Can..
The probability of an outage is high, but the longer the outage the less likely it becomes. A generator that run your home for a few hours would make a huge difference in power reliability. Long outages might be less common, but are devastating when they occur.
We live in the country and want to remain here, but after our experiences if we need to move into town for health reasons we will add a generator back-up system right away. Homeowners have many good generator options. For a reasonable cost a generator, that can provide emergency power for a long period, can be added to your home. These systems vary widely in price, so shopping around is very important.
After you have a generator, the next step is to buy a high quality batteries and a high quality inverter/charger to supply power without running the generator, until the batteries are low. This makes the generator last much longer, reduces power costs and sets the stage for adding solar electric panels or a wind machine to supplement