Why our next project is off-grid

17 10 2013

“Off-grid” or “off the grid” can mean lots of things to different people, especially if they are as diverse as Americans versus Australians.  I think the term probably started in the US.  I’ve always thought of the term as meaning not involving or requiring the use of mainstream sources of energy, but some definitions have wider meaning….

Off-grid is a new adjective which describes the situation of not using public utilities such as electricity, gas, water and mains sewerage. A truly off-grid home or building is completely autonomous in that it operates independently, not relying on any central supply of power or water.

I have to say that after seeing how much it costs now to be connected to the water grid and sewerage, I am very pleased we are not hooked up to either of those…  According to the definition above, we already are off-grid to a large extent, but for the purpose of this essay, I will mean not being connected to the electricity grid.

When we first connected to the grid with our first solar array, I wanted  to make a point.  Being the 400th grid tied solar house in Queensland makes us pioneers.  Today, there are 285,000!  Had we built at Mt Nebo as originally planned for the system which I bought before I even started building, we would have been even further up he list.  Compared to the cost of solar today, back then it really was an extravagance.  Like $500 for 64W panels, when today that sort of money will buy you 500W!  Or a 1500W inverter (that admittedly was also a stand alone inverter and battery charger) costing $5000…. when today you can buy portable inverters of that capacity for under $100, and grid tied devices for $350…!

The main reason, however, for my wish to go off-grid after being a campaigner for grid tying, is that I can see the writing on the wall for the grid once the brown stuff hits the fan.

Recently, Tristan Edis wrote in Climate Spectator:

The ‘Declining Demand Death Spiral’ is a story that has captivated many involved in the electricity sector. Imagine a downward spiral where electricity businesses chase their tails increasing prices to recover large fixed investments, which prompts customers to install solar and reduce demand, which is followed by further price rises followed by further demand drops and ad infinitum until the rich start going off the grid with batteries leaving the poor like pensioners behind.

He then adds….

It is massively overblown for two reasons:

1) The foreseeable change in network charges due to solar demand reductions is not big enough to spur other people to spend several thousand dollars on solar and batteries;

2) The available evidence suggests a small difference in uptake of solar according to income levels.

That’s all very well, but I know quite a few people who hate the way Campbell “can’t do” Newman has trashed the Feed in Tariff in Qld, and the power companies themselves so much, they are already contemplating waving their middle fingers at the grid very soon….  One commenter who is obviously also an installer left this comment”

I’ve received numerous enquiries from rural households wanting to disconnect from the main-grid. Interestingly, even when advised it is not economic, some households still want to proceed as they ‘dislike’ their electricity provider so much that they are prepared to pay a premium to not have to deal with them anymore. Hopefully, the retailers will continue to confuse and annoy consumers, so this niche market keeps growing.

For me who wants to move to Tasmania, however, the clincher was this little news item which I have seen nowhere else:

THE state government must consider selling Hydro Tasmania ahead of costly maintenance demands and sliding profits, a Tasmanian energy consultant has warned.


Despite posting a record $238 million profit last week, Mr White said the business was likely to soon be faced with huge repair bills for its ageing infrastructure and had already flagged a drop-off in profits due to plans to axe the carbon tax.

But will this be a problem for just Tasmania?  As the financial system grinds to a halt over the next few years (boy I wish I had a crystal ball…) and fuel, or rather cheap fuel runs out to power the helicopters which fly the HT power lines in the valley below us all the time to monitor potential high tension grid problems,  how long will the grid remain reliable?  Of what use is a grid tied solar array when the grid is down?  What is the point of generating all that power, the costs of which you have already paid for, if you can’t use it when you need it most?

Until recently, we had back up batteries for the odd time this happened, and as luck would have it, no sooner had I sold the batteries, we had to endure a five and a half hour blackout while we waited for the power lines that were all over the road just a few hundred metres away to be fixed….  After nearly ten years of uninterrupted power, it came as a rude shock, believe me…!

All sorts of things go wrong in blackouts.  We couldn’t get water from our taps.  The fans in the compost toilet stopped working, slowly filling the house with unpleasant odours, and of course no lights apart from candles and torches….  Luckily for us, our fridges are so efficient that when the power came back on, the main fridge didn’t even cut in!  Imagine what might happen to the eggs in our incubator though if we suddenly had a lengthy blackout in the middle of an incubation?  How compromised would those eggs be if they were allowed to cool down for any length of time…..?  While I had good reasons to ditch the old battery/inverter system, I miss the security of uninterruptible power already.

As the price of grid power goes up, and renewables come down, Tristan’s “death spiral” may well become real.

And yes, I acknowledge that even if we do end up with a good stand alone system in Tasmania, eventually it will all end up being for nought as post collapse it will become impossible to repair or replace failing components.  That will be our children’s problem I’m afraid……..