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As one home heads off grid… many more are choosing not to connect

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One Step Off The Grid

Even as Australian power prices continue to rise, and the costs of solar and battery storage continue to fall, it remains relatively rare for established, grid-connected households to cut the cord, so to speak, and leave their local electricity network.

But it is happening. In the Victoria’s Latrobe Valley region, for example, local business Gippsland Solar has recently helped to fit out a home with everything it needs to go it alone: a 15kW (3 phase) system with battery storage “in the middle of Traralgon!”

The project (pictured above and below) ranks as one of Gippsland Solar’s biggest ever residential jobs, including the installation of 54 LG NeON2 mono panels – north and west to spread the generation across the day and increase self-consumption; a Fronius Symo 15kW inverter; three Victron Quattro hybrid units; and a 48V, 600ah battery bank, using Narada lead-carbon batteries.

With all that installed, the client now plans to monitor the system over the winter months and, once satisfied it can meet the household’s needs year-round, remove the smart meter and disconnect from the grid.

So what motivates a consumer to go to such lengths?

According to Gippsland Solar’s founder and managing director, Andrew McCarthy, the client – who had spent months researching his options for going off grid – was largely motivated by self-sufficiency: “the peace of mind that comes with having complete control over his own electricity production and storage.”

But McCarthy says the client also wanted to rid himself of the house’s grid-connected smart meter to prevent the utility from collecting data about his electricity usage across the day.

This suggests a sort of disconnect with the energy establishment that ought to be making utilities uneasy; not to mention the Australian Energy Market Operator, which – under the guidance of its enlightened new CEO, Audrey Zibelman – has finally woken up to the importance of rooftop solar and storage in maintaining whole of grid security in the new energy future.

“If you have solar on your roof and you are putting in storage, it is saying that during certain hours of the day you use solar to charge up the battery, and then, rather than relying on grid, you reduce demand on the grid,” Zibelman has said.

“For us (the grid operator) that’s the same as increasing generation… and a lot cheaper than building a new power plant that is only used for a few hours a year.

“Some call this the democratisation of energy …. but it is essentially about the ability for people to use their own resources, and to get reward for it.”

The problem is, a growing number of Australian households have become tired of waiting for democracy to kick in, and are taking matters into their own hands. At the same time, the cost of doing so is becoming more and more attractive, while the cost of staying on the grid, even with solar and storage, appears to becomes more and more punitive.

“Clients wanting to disconnect from the grid are becoming increasingly common,” McCarthy told One Step Off The Grid on Tuesday. “Even in the middle of towns and suburbs.

“Consumers are well aware that with the uptake of residential solar, the power companies are looking to increase service and demand charges to recover their costs. The only way to protect themselves against this is to disconnect from the grid entirely,” he said.

And like his Traralgon client, McCarthy said there was also a concern around energy providers having access to consumers’ consumption data via the smart meter roll-out.

“Privacy is a big issue, so going off the grid is appealing to many of our clients.”

But perhaps even more worryingly for Australian network operators and incumbents is the increasing number of new home builders – particularly in Australia’s regional areas – who are simply bypassing the grid altogether.

According to McCarthy, as much as half of all new-build homes his company deals with are making those homes completely energy independent, right from the outset, preferring to spend the tens of thousands of dollars often required to connect to the grid on solar and battery storage.

“We have been particularly shocked at how many (customers) are turning their back on the grid, and installing a stand-alone system on their new home,” he told One Step.

“Of the dozens of new homes we have installed solar for in the last 12 months, nearly half of them elected not to connect to the grid.

“In regional Victoria, the typical grid connection cost can be anywhere from $10,000 – $25,000, and pushing up towards $80,000 for longer distances.

“These clients are telling me that they don’t want to pay those prices to connect a smart meter, and still be held hostage to ever-increasing service charges.”

This article was originally published on RenewEconomy’s sister site, One Step Off The Grid, which focuses on customer experience with distributed generation. To sign up to One Step’s free weekly newsletter, please click here.  

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  • Shane White

    I wonder how many diesel and petrol generators have been sold to such households?
    The noise and pollution will delightful for community harmony, and the EPA in respective states.

    • Chris Schneider

      If only you did math… it’s such an edge case to use a generator there will be very little disturbance and the generator would run to charge the batteries and turn off, basically the same as if solar was available. But this case would be rare. Most of grid systems are designed for three days with out solar. If they make it through winter it’s all roses! https://www.livingin-australia.com/sunshine-hours-australia/

      • Shane White

        If only you’d seen and heard the so called “PV” systems I’ve seen. I call them diesel plus some solar. Anyhow, as you eluded to Chris, they’ll all now be well designed and generator use will be rare. It’s a fact because you said it.

        • Chris Schneider

          can you rethink what you wrote as i have no idea what you mean. written word doesn’t carry your inflections

          • Shane White

            Never mind. I was poking fun at your claim of rare without any evidence.

            Anyhow, instead, wouldn’t regulation be nice, to independently ensure off-grid systems prevented running of generators after dark, and to prohibit those generators powering heavy loads like air conditioners for the purpose of heating on a chilly winter’s night.

          • don’t worry shane, i think it will be self regulating. Ive got a generator, I’ve used it for one hour in the last 18 months. Made such a bloody racket and such a stink i hope i don’t have to use it again. Friends of mine nearby are off grid completely, got a generator but not used it once in past year.

          • Chris Schneider

            Thanks for the reality check on this Giles.
            Given the new plans like Sonnen I doubt city people will need to be off grid but rural it seems to make sense. @ $10,000 to connect to the grid then all the other charges I can’t see why you would.

        • solarguy

          Shane, they would be old systems when PV was expensive.

      • Shane White

        If only *they* did the math, the designers and consumers.

    • Brunel

      Put a big import tax on 2 stroke engines.

      What about the smoke and pollution coming from fireplaces? Especially from new houses!

  • George Darroch

    I’d trim the trees if I were this person – there’s a bit of shading around their roof. Gippsland also gets some of the lowest insolation in the country thanks to latitude and cloud cover, so they’re certainly ambitious.

    Good on them though, I’m confident it will work out.

  • solarguy

    I have done much the same as these people, but we will stay connected to the grid as it is paying us to do so, with the FIT just increased to 12.5 cents. All we need to do is send back 694kwh/quarter to the grid and it will pay the SAC charge, but in reality we send back in excess of that, while still charging the battery and running loads. And yes that includes the air conditioners, off the battery at night, while not using the grid hardly ever. If need be we can cut the cord if we wanted to, that’s the way I designed the system, sure we will need a back up genset if we do, but it will get little use over the year.

    Yesterday 4/7/17, PV produced 37.9kwh, feed to the grid 17.1kwh, over double what we need to brake even on SAC.

    But the best news is we IMPORTED NOTHING and this scenario is typical. So I wouldn’t be hasty in cutting the cord if I were them.

    I’m curious to know why with 3 Quattro Hybrids, the Fronius 15kw Inverter was needed, as those alone should give 3 phase output?

    • nakedChimp

      The Quattros are probably the battery chargers and controllers and the Fronius the DC/AC converter where they run all their loads from (15kW, 230Vac = 65A.. 3 phase that’s ~20 per phase, pretty standard for a house).
      The Fronius won’t be able to charge the batteries from the solar, the Quattros do that.

      Currently there is no system on the market that does all that in one single box – unfortunately.
      Will take another 5 years for such to arrive.
      Esp a little bit smaller than what these boxes are combined.

      My dad is DIY something like that.. 😉

    • Ren Stimpy

      Exactly why would anyone want to cut the cord with a half-decent FiT (once the battery is charged of course)? A lot of families go away for a couple weeks every year on holidays – all their solar output in that time could be earning them coin if they are connected. Not to mention most weekdays when the kids are at school and the parents at work i.e. excess solar output to sell to the grid after the battery is charged.

      • solarguy

        Yeah, I’m not sure what their FIT is but it sounds silly to me that they are strongly considering cutting the cord. I think the FIT in Victoria is 11cents, so unless their home is an energy black hole and they use most of the output, I can’t understand their thinking.

  • Brunel

    Lead carbon batteries!

    I wonder how old the batteries are. Powerwall 2.0 seems to be the cheapest way to store electrons. Maybe Sonnen is competitive now.

    • nakedChimp

      PW havn’t got that kind of power interface.. DC.

      Using them for Off-grid is not that straightforward.

  • Hans the Elder

    If the smart meter only measures what goes in and out of the grid, a battery means you can obscure when you use power, so no need to go off-grid solely for privacy reasons.