Solar Energy: Pros And Cons Of Off-The-Grid V. Grid-Tied Systems

Solar energy is a very liberating concept for most people. Words like energy independence and going off-the-grid have a very exciting feel to them. They spawn images in the minds of potential buyers, ranging from sustainable living to a rejection of, or at least freedom from, the constraints of modern society. The truth is actually a bit more mundane, but far more practical. Before discussing off-the-grid v. grid-tied solar applications, it is important to consider a few practical points. First, it is a good idea to make sure the home is as energy efficient as possible before installing solar energy panels. The more energy a home uses, the more solar panels it takes to either defray or eliminate the electric bill. Often an inefficient hot water heater, dryer, or air conditioning unit will cost more in electricity over the course of a few short months, than the purchase price of a new appliance. It is important to replace inefficient appliances before estimating usage and installing solar equipment. Solar energy needs are based on overall electricity usage, so it is necessary to calculate the number of panels necessary to create an efficient panel array for the house. Solar Estimator offers a tool for estimating how much energy one needs. Choosing off-the-grid v. grid-tied systems really depends first on the location of the home, reliability of electrical service in the area, and the overall goals of the individual. Some people just want to save money on the electricity bill while others want to have electricity in the event of an emergency. A few just want that sense of freedom and independence. Some live in remote areas where electricity is not readily available. Choose a grid-tied system if money is the only concern. In many areas, the energy company will pay to use the homeowner’s excess electricity and some people actually turn a profit at the end of each month. Grid-tied solar panels are also the most economical investment because that kind of system is far cheaper to install. Grid-tied solar panels don’t use the expensive battery arrays required in off-the-grid applications. Off-the-grid v. grid-tied decisions are most commonly determined by budget considerations, and generally in a low budget situation grid-tied wins. Most home solar energy applications are grid-tied because it is a lot cheaper to install those battery-free systems that use the grid’s resources. Solar energy applications in areas with excellent electrical repair response time may lend best to a grid-tied system. But for someone who wants emergency power, in the event of a long-term power failure, this just isn’t the way to go. [Photo by Melanie Conner/Getty Images]An off-the-grid system is by far the only choice for those interested in backup power in the event of a power failure. The biggest drawback of a grid-tied system is that in a power outage, the homeowner cannot use the solar array to restore electricity. Mother Earth News explains why the electric company ensures solar panels attached to their grid are not going to function in a power failure. “However, for safety reasons, grid-tied systems cannot function when the grid power goes down (a live load on the line would present a danger to utility workers coming in to fix power outages), and to many independence-seeking homeowners, that is the biggest drawback of grid-tied systems.” Solar energy users who feel comfortable with being without electricity whenever the grid fails to provide can cash in on the savings of a grid-tied system. If one lives in an area with consistently reliable utilities, and homeowners cannot imagine a situation in which the power could go out for days, a grid-tied system would be a good solution. Off-the-grid systems can also leave their owners without power as well. Any time that usage exceeds output plus battery storage, power outages happen. For that reason, an ample array of batteries is desirable, and even a backup generator might be a good safeguard, especially in remote areas, in a situation of extended periods of cloud cover. Solar Panels [Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]Off-the-grid solar applications require specialized deep cycle batteries, and it is these batteries that provide energy at night and on very cloudy days. Batteries are expensive, but the costs are going down. Elon Musk, the Tesla car mastermind, is heavily invested in creating lithium ion batteries that would be cheaper and more efficient. He calls his latest invention a “power wall.” It is already competitive in price for the capacity it has. This 10kWh battery sells for just $3,500. Someday, not too long from now, these superior battery systems are expected to reduce considerably more in price, according to Revision Energy. Off-the-grid solar energy systems will be revolutionized by this innovation, and become more reliable and affordable. So affordable, that according to Cleantechnia the power grid may eventually become obsolete. That isn’t happening soon, though. Solar energy is currently far more commonly of the grid-tied variety rather than the off-the-grid application. That could change in the near future, as the cost of deep cycle batteries reduces and overall efficiency of the batteries increases. Are there extremely inexpensive off-the-grid solar solutions now? Sure, there are, but they are generally designed by the homeowner and do not involve using traditional home wiring. These are minimalist systems that will afford very few modern conveniences. They usually involve moving a couple of golf cart batteries and an inverter around on a dolly from one usage point to another. It isn’t great, but it will work, and keeping such a primitive system around might be a good emergency preparedness measure. There are some determined individuals who use them every day, in cabins and tiny houses, but they aren’t designed to accommodate contemporary suburban lifestyles. Off-the-grid v. grid-tied solar energy questions are easily answered by each individual depending on their needs, desires, and circumstances. [Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images]

Tesla's SolarCity Powers Entire Island To Show Off Strength Of New Solar Panels

Tesla Motors is powering an entire island in the South Pacific Ocean with solar power, according to a post in the SolarCity blog. “There are challenges to living on a remote island – from food scarcity to destructive weather – and the lack of affordable, reliable power is among the greatest,” the post begins. “The island of Ta’u in American Samoa, located more than 4,000 miles from the West Coast of the United States, is no stranger to power rationing and outages.” Ta’u is home to approximately 600 residents. “I recall a time they weren’t able to get the boat out here for two months,” Keith Ahsoon, a resident whose family owns a grocery store on the island, told SolarCity. “We rely on that boat for everything, including importing diesel for the generators for all of our electricity. Once diesel gets low, we try to save it by using it only for mornings and afternoons.” The islanders have previously relied on the diesel-powered generators for their water supply as well, which caused additional stress for the community. “It’s hard to live not knowing what’s going to happen,” Ahsoon explained. “I remember growing up using candlelight. And now, in 2016, we were still experiencing the same problems.” The island of Ta’u runs nearly 100% on renewable energy because of their solar and battery storage-enabled microgrid — SolarCity (@solarcity) November 22, 2016 The new microgrid that Tesla and SolarCity recently completed on the island could change all of that. The microgrid is powered by 1.4 megawatts of solar energy produced by SolarCity and Tesla panels, as well as 6 megawatt hours of battery energy stored in 60 Tesla Powerpacks. Construction of the microgrid took just one year from start to finish, according to the SolarCity post. “This is part of making history. This project will help lessen the carbon footprint of the world,” Ahsoon said. “Living on an island, you experience global warming firsthand. Beach erosions and other noticeable changes are a part of life here.” He added that the SolarCity Ta’u microgrid project “will hopefully set a good example for everyone else to follow.” The project was funded by American Samoa Economic Development Authority, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Interior. SolarCity estimates that it will “offset the use of more than 109,500 gallons of diesel per year.” Reducing fuel costs at that level would have a substantially positive impact on the island’s economy. The island of Ta’u runs nearly 100% on renewable energy because of their solar and battery storage-enabled microgrid — SolarCity (@solarcity) November 22, 2016 Tesla Motors, which is headed by former PayPal entrepreneur and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, finalized the acquisition of SolarCity on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Tesla Motors Inc. on Monday said it closed the acquisition of SolarCity Corp., paving the way for Chief Executive Elon Musk to begin integrating the solar-panel business into the auto maker to create an integrated clean-energy company,” Tim Higgins wrote for the Journal. “Mr. Musk, who was chairman of SolarCity and the largest shareholder of both companies, wants to target customers with solar panels and batteries to let them power their homes and electric cars with clean energy.” Musk’s work at SpaceX and Tesla Motors, which produced the first solar sports car — the Tesla Roadster — in 2008, has been on the cutting edge of space travel and solar and renewable energy developments for several years. At times Musk has stirred controversy with his out-of-the-box thinking. For instance, as Vox reported in June, he has asserted that all of humanity is living within a virtual reality simulation and estimated that “the odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions.” However, it is exactly that type of unorthodox thinking that has led to his visionary success. “Ta’u is not a postcard from the future, it’s a snapshot of what is possible right now,” the SolarCity blog post exclaims. “Renewable power is an economical, practical solution for a growing number of locations and energy needs, and islands that have traditionally relied on fossil fuels can easily transition to microgrids powered by solar and storage today.” [Featured Image by Ethan Miller/Getty Images]