70 hours without power: Beating blackouts with grid independence

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A new suite of rooftop solar and storage products can not only power your home during a blackout, but can do so at off-peak rates.

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Last month, SunWiz experienced first-hand the crippling impacts of a blackout. Following a massive multi-day rain storm that cut off roads in both directions, the power went out right at the moment we were making preparations for high water. In my neck of the woods (the hinterland of Byron Bay), a blackout isn’t such an uncommon occurrence – we lose power twice or thrice per year. We usually light candles, converse with each other, and retire to bed early – only to be woken in the middle of the night by all the lights and appliances switching on when the power resumes. In this case, after 16 hours of candles, conversation, and sleep, we made a rare visit to our next door neighbour, spending the afternoon connecting over a few bottles of red wine.

What made this different was the severity and duration of the power outages. It’s was 70 hours (three days) without electricity, though some were without for five days. When I called to check on the power status, a recorded message informed me that I was one of 18,000 people from Tweed Heads to Bellingen without power, and there were tens of thousands more in south-east Queensland. Apparently the duration of the blackout meant batteries went flat on mobile phone towers, leaving Energex to install portable generators and then run up and down mountains to refuel them.

Losing power makes you realise how much we rely upon it. My first-world list of complaints includes loss of internet, loss of mobile phone coverage (my rural booster went out), loss of Facebook (of greater concern for my neighbour’s teenage children who thought this was the foretold-but-delayed apocalypse). After three days, a refrigerator full of warm food really smells.

But perhaps the greatest impact has been the loss of running water. 9km from the nearest town, we live on rainwater and even though our 37,000L tank is now full (twice over), without electricity to pump the water up to our second storey Queenslander, we were reduced to collecting buckets of water with which to bathe, wash dishes, and flush toilets.

And call me a solar geek but I was also upset about losing $5/day in feed-in tariff payment from my solar power system (is Essential Energy liable for lost revenue?). We have a 3kW system, and our low-energy lifestyle and solar hot water systems means we produce twice as much electricity as we consume. The morning after the storm cleared, I first though the storm had damaged my system, for its solar inverter was showing a fault light. It took me a moment to remember that that the fault light on my solar inverter was not because there was something wrong with my system but something wrong with the grid. You see, in order to protect the lives of linesmen working to clear faults on the grid, typical solar power systems shut down during blackouts, even during the day. So, for all of the energy available on site, I wasn’t able to use it… hence no running water (or Facebook).

A battery backup system can provide power in such cases. But its quite an investment just to avoid the occasional inconvenience of a blackout, particularly if they only last a few hours. Widespread grid interruption events like this are likely to become more common due to climate change. Having already taken a step towards energy independence, I think its time to step towards grid independence. Fortunately, there’s a new suite of products on the market that do more than just provide power during a blackout, they can also power your home entirely at off-peak rates, and ensure your electricity retailer doesn’t buy your excess solar power for a pittance and on-sell it to your neighbour at a markup.

A battery-based low-voltage Grid Feed Inverter typically provides the following functions:
·         Provides continuous power when the grid is down.
·         PV continues to operate during outages
·         Can be used with or without PV,
·         PV can be AC Coupled with a Grid inverter or DC Coupled.
·         Export excess PV after Self Consumption
·         Charge batteries from Grid OFF Peak for use during peak periods.

Some brands are able to be retrofit to existing systems regardless of the inverter, some only work work with the same brand of inverter, and some are all-in-one units that replace your existing inverter. The most common solutions currently available in Australia are:

  • Selectronic SPPro: can be retrofit to an existing system, though combining with a Kaco grid-connect inverter enables additional features including enhanced battery utilisation and greater configuration. Can perform grid demand management and export control. About 7000 units already deployed.
  • SMA Sunny Backup: available in 8kW, 44kW, and 110kW units, compatible with SMA grid-connect inverters. About 3000 units already deployed.
  • Nedap Power Router (distributed by SETEC) – an all-in-one unit (options 3kW, 3.7kW, 5kW) with or without storage that is currently available and looks great.
  • Zen Residential Freedom Powebank – about to go into production, provides 14-20kWh of energy storage, allows grid support (network controlled discharging).
  • Sol-Ace Sun-Sink and Grid Demand – currently being produced and available in 5 & 10 kWh units, with prices starting from $3000.

 

 

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7 Comments
  1. John P Morgan 6 years ago

    Fair enough Warwick!
    But it is even better without the grid connection.
    You can’t put a dollar value on the feeling of freedom and the sense of independence!

  2. Ben Elliston 6 years ago

    Warwick, is your solar hot water a split system or close coupled? I imagine after 70 hours, I could be regretting my more aestethically pleasing, but electricity driven split system.

  3. Terry Wall 6 years ago

    Thanks Warwick
    very useful information.

  4. Gillian 6 years ago

    Ben, it doesn’t matter whether his solar hot water is onroof or split system because he can’t get water to flow without an electric pump. He’s using buckets.

  5. Gordon Garradd 6 years ago

    Having been living off-grid for over 20 years, I generally only hear about blackouts from the news or talking to neighbours. Off grid is much more reiable than mains power around here, and I suspect many other rural areas, so long as you have your system set up well. I’ve just jumped to Lithium battery storage, which is proving to be a lot more efficient than Lead-acid batteries.
    As John commented earlier, being independent is priceless. Using batteries for backup when the grid goes down is ideal if you are getting a decent FiT, but in these days of minimal to zero FiTs, going off-grid makes more sense, as you avoid the hefty standing charges.

  6. Fleur Crowe 6 years ago

    Its only now that I finally appreciate the benefit of becoming grid connected. I have been off grid since 1998, a time when we were still being told it was impossible to run a home on solar and batteries. I’m on my 2nd install of batteries, inverter and more panels. Only have 2kW.. ran my home on < 1kW for the 1st 13 years – with a majorly modified fridge, and yes i have a wood hot water system and gas cooking to manage. At this time of year my 2kW is over producing and alas i'm not able to export. My battery storage is too small (winter about 3 times a year). So the cost to run a small petrol generator has been the choice over increasing the batteries for such a small outage period… But I can now see the possibility to increase my battery bank in time, as the price falls… especially because these new batteries are maintenance free and have a far longer useful life (and I'm assuming almost totally recycleable) .

    I have always felt that the only way to encourage energy conservation, is to ensure each built structure in some part, is responsible for its own generation. Theres storage examples and others I have read about are going to see this become a reality.

    Already I'm not so strange having PV on my roof… this is 'almost' becoming normalised… WoW how far have we come…Even my 79 year old mother has a 5kW PV system to off-set her ac unit! Current network restrictions in WA, prevent her from installing more, storage will assist in removing this limitation in time.

    • John P Morgan 6 years ago

      “Current network restrictions”
      This fact represents one of the reasons I prefer to remain off grid. I’ve been off grid now for more than twenty years and intend to remain so.
      Having a grid connection forces you to submit to the manipulations of the retailers and the governments who prop them up.
      Once upon a time, the electricity supply assets were meant to benefit the public interest.
      Now the public interest is subverted to optimise the profitability of the owners of the assets.

      Solar panels are now so cheap that it is possible to upgrade the plant and do away with the backup generator. Go for it.

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