Up North and Off Grid: Living with Solar

Last spring I was in to visit one of our local solar energy suppliers. He has some pretty strong concerns about folks who want to achieve solar energy independence, and he asked me to write this article to get people to engage their brains before they open their wallets.

Energy use and conservation is on everyone’s mind these days. Governments are giving grants to make our homes more efficient, and to encourage more use of solar technologies. But is solar the best way to spend our energy dollars?  Here are my thoughts and experiences of living with solar energy for the past 25-plus years.

We live about 7 km away from the nearest hydro pole. The cost of linking up to the grid would likely exceed $100,000, I’d guess. This is why we chose solar panels to provide our electricity needs. Another option would be windmills, but we don’t get enough wind here to keep those blades spinning for more than a couple of hours a week.

Some folks use small or large generators to fill their electricity needs. We couldn’t stand the noise, or the fumes, or the constant need to buy more fuel and haul it in.

For us, solar panels are the perfect solution. They do have a high up-front cost, but there are no moving parts, no expensive maintenance, and they produce power silently.  Ahhhh… I can hear the loons in the evening, and in the morning, all summer long.

Our home is designed for energy efficiency. Passive solar heating works best with the sun low in the sky. Earth sheltered construction means natural cooling in summer. Every electrical gadget we buy is analyzed for how much power it uses. Power tools are used mostly in the summer, when electricity is abundant.

Still, as we enter the autumn months, living with solar energy has a downside. The sun is lower in the sky. It rises later each morning, and sets earlier each afternoon. It rains a lot. Our ‘productive’ hours of energy gain are cut in half (or more) from the summer peak in June. The dark days of November are nigh. To say nothing of December.

Then January comes, and the days get longer and brighter again! Cold days are often clear, and the sun reflecting off all that snow brings our power back.

The cost of our system is about $20,000, including solar panels, wiring, batteries, controllers, inverters, etc. At peak summer production we get about 3 kwh a day. Through the autumn it will drop to 1 kwh a day. And we live very comfortably with that.

But for folks who live where the power line already comes to your home, my friend at the solar energy store suggests doing some math. Let’s be generous and suggest that our $20,000 system will produce an average of 1 kwh/day throughout the year. This takes into account rainy days in November when no power is produced. Over a period of 10 years, we could maybe produce 3,600 kilowatts. Our ‘cost’ per kilowatt is about $5.50. Twenty years gets it down to $2.50. Compare that to your hydro bill.

Solar energy is a wonderful system for those of us with few other options for electricity, but for folks who can plug into the grid, you’ll save a lot more money by investing in conservation.

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