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How to live off the grid – even near sunny (!?) Melbourne

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Let me tell you about my morning.

I got up, turned the bathroom light and fan on, had a shower, dried my hair and then used the straightening iron to get rid of the annoying kinks.  Bedroom and hallway lights went on before I fired up the oil heater in my daughter’s room, which is always quite chilly in winter despite the insulating layer of boy band posters on the wall.

I stoked the fire and put the fan on, Red Symons started squawking from the radio, the microwave pinged as three bowls of porridge were cooked, a load of washing went on and the fridge opened and

closed a dozen or so times while I made school lunches.

Now, I won’t continue to bore you with the minutiae of our typical weekday routine because I’m sure you get enough of that from your more annoying Facebook friends.

The point I’m trying to make is that we’re an average family doing everyday things.  The only difference between your morning and ours is that you’re probably pulling your power from the grid.

Generally, when I tell people that our family-sized, 38 square home in semi-rural Little River, west of Melbourne, is completely solar powered, they think I mean we feed power back into the grid.  Others, once I’ve explained that we have no physical grid connection, don’t quite believe it’s possible to have total freedom from energy costs.

And, strictly speaking, it’s not.  But it is possible to have freedom from energy companies.

In 2012 when we started to build on the 17 acres we’d purchased in Little River six years earlier, it marked the start of our off-grid adventure.  We’d spent considerable time trying to find an alternative to a grid connection quote upwards of $30,000 for a new power pole, 400 metres of trenching, conduit and cabling with the added cost of ongoing quarterly power bills.

The answer lay in 30 shiny PV panels (total of 5.5kW), a main AC switchboard Selectronic SP Pro 7kW inverter charger, a Kaco 6002 5kW inverter and a 24 cell 48v flooded lead acid (FLA) battery bank.

off grid panels

It’s a beautiful thing, this grouping of parts and components that, when connected as a whole, creates a perfectly serviceable personal power station.  For me, helping to lug each battery cell into place in our garage – literally, a tonne of weight in total – it represented a lifestyle I wanted and that other people tell me they dream of.

But before I get carried away with rose-tinted poetic musings of energy autonomy, I must explain that this off grid goodness isn’t for everyone.

Our system cost $60,090, with around $7500 in government rebates for selling our renewable energy certificates (RECs) so someone else could pollute with impunity.  Not ideal, but hey, a mortgage is a mortgage.

off grid solar

And it took a bit of getting used to.  In fact, for the first few months my husband and I had minor anxiety attacks every time the kids wanted to switch the TV on.  A path was worn from the living area to the mud room where the wall mounted battery monitor is, checking and rechecking battery state of charge (SOC) before giving our permission for the Dr Who DVD box set to go on.  We could have connected a back-up generator, but just didn’t have the money at the time (did I mention the mortgage?) so were ultra careful to not let the SOC drop too low in order to help prolong battery life.

Pretty soon though, the anxiety wore off and the expense was tucked away on our home loan, which we’ll hopefully pay off before retirement.  These days, almost two years on, we consume power like everyone else; on demand.  And we still haven’t connected that back up generator, because we just don’t need it.

I consider people like my family and others in Australia to be the off-grid solar guinea pigs.  And not tie-dye wearing, dread-locked guinea pigs either.  The off-gridders I’ve spoken to are business suit-wearing teachers, civil servants, builders, engineers and journalists and I’m yet to hear any of them say they’ve compromised their lifestyle to live this way.

While off-grid isn’t yet viable for most, here’s my two cents worth; despite the damage our federal government is doing to the renewables sector, the cost of storage will eventually reduce enough for all those people dreaming of freedom from energy companies.  We’ll see an explosion in consumers rethinking their energy consumption and their reliance on the grid.

Whether this takes the form of stand alone systems or community based storage banks, the future of affordable off-grid living is now being shaped.  And I look forward to you joining us.

Emma Sutcliffe blogs about her family’s experiences at  www.theoffgridsolarhouse.com

  

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  • Chokyi Nyingpo

    I think you’ll find that you have 30 x approx 180 WATT panels not KILO watts. Otherwise you’d have a 165 MEGAwatt house! Which would be awesome and definitely worth writing about.

    • patb2009

      nice to go off grid with 5 KW, add another 2 KW and you might be able to charge an electric car to the whole house. BTW, an electric car acts as an emergency generator.

  • Zvyozdochka

    Which reminds me, I really need to finish writing up our experiences.

  • John P

    As I think I have mentioned somewhere else on this site, going off grid is feasible for many as long as the system is well designed, installed and monitored. Some domestic procedural activities may have to be adjusted, and some demand management policies instituted, but it is well worth the attempt.
    We did it some 22 years ago and and would never go back to the unreliable, expensive and polluting coal based version.

  • Robert Johnston

    Lets just hope the electricity utilities don’t end up like the water utilities and slug you a quarterly fee whether you are connected or not. Hello Sydney Water! I LOOOOVE getting your bill each quarter for my unoccupied block of vacant land, just because you have a sewer pipe in my street!

    • Pedro

      What happens if you don’t pay the bill?

      • Ronald Bruce Jones

        I think you will find when you sell the block(if you do!) There will be an accrual of rates outstanding to be paid from the sale of the block

      • Robert Johnston

        They have the power to take possession of the property – its not even that uncommon, they (mostly regional Councils) do it all the time in areas of low land value.

  • Chris Fraser

    And having no ongoing energy bill (apart from maybe a bit of accrual accounting for battery maintenance) would definitely allow the calculation of a rate of return of the investment. All the very best to this project which enjoys energy even when the neighbours suffer an outage !

  • Pedro

    Emma, looks like you did your homework and got yourself a well designed and installed system using quality gear. I would disagree that you are an off grid guinea pig though. There are thousands of systems in the hills of Northern NSW and south eastern QLD that have been in operation for 20+ years, though mostly far more modestly sized than yours. Off grid solar has always worked, the end user just needs to understand the limitations (power production, energy storage then usage).

  • As mentioned by others earlier, going off-grid isn’t for guinea pigs any more, I’ve being doing it since 1991 here. In contrast with older off-grid systems, these days it’s a better idea to go with a smaller, preferably Lithium battery, and more panels, as the battery is the main ongoing expense with an off-grid system, and panels have come down about 90% in cost since 1991, when I paid over $10/watt for a couple of 59W BP panels. Rather more guinea pig-ish, I made the move from Lead-acid to LiFePO4 chemistry in 2012, and haven’t had to run the generator since. Lithium cells are a lot more efficient than Lead-acid, and can be safely discharged to a much greater depth, without compromising battery life. After some recent reconfiguration of my battery and charging parameters, I’m seeing better than 98% charging efficiency, a huge advantage when it comes to maximising the available energy a system can deliver from a PV array.

  • Latimer Alder

    ‘before I fired up the oil heater in my daughter’s room’.

    Sure. Heating’s the biggest drain on power. And you are burning oil, not gathering sunshine to do it.