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What to consider before going off-grid

Solar panel installation

Thinking of buying a rural property? Trying to figure out whether it makes more sense to go “on grid” or “off grid”? Is it best to clear a right-of-way, bring in power poles and connect to the local power utility, or to forget all that and set up your own private system using solar panels, batteries, and a generator, or other viable off-grid energy sources such as propane?

Either way, unless you choose to live without electricity, having a reliable source at the lowest cost is key to living comfortably—and staying connected to the rest of the world.

The reality
In situations where there is the option of going on grid or off grid, cost will be the first consideration. Lars Jensen is owner of Integrated Power Systems in Kelowna, BC. He says that if bringing in outside power is going to cost more than $20,000 or $30,000, it is worth considering being off grid. However, if it is any less, he stresses that it makes more economic sense to hook up to the power grid. “It is never smart,” says Jensen, “for someone who is already on grid to switch over to off grid, because of the extra cost for a system and the fact that power rates are currently very cheap in Canada.” However, the initial set-up cost isn’t the only factor.

Off-grid real estate costs
For some people, one of the primary reasons for going off grid is the lower cost of real estate. Off-grid properties are often much less expensive than properties serviced by an electrical utility. For example, Shane and Tamara Johnson were able to buy their 160-acre off-grid dream property in Stony Plain, Alberta, complete with a 38-acre lake, for $70,000, while at that time (1999) the average price for on-grid properties was starting at about $160,000. Shane eventually became so involved in off-grid power that he started his own company, SolarPanel.ca. And while the capital cost of his “Living Without Compromise” system was just over $50,000, even when added to the cost of the 160 acres he still came out ahead compared to buying an on-grid property.

No electricity bill
One of the reasons many people, including the Johnsons, choose off grid is that they don’t want to get stuck paying electrical bills for the rest of their lives, especially when uncertain about how high electricity rates will climb in the coming years. Going off grid means being independent of power companies. And while the capital cost of setting up an efficient off-grid system may be higher than bringing in utility power (depending on the location of the nearest source) this is normally offset over the ensuing years by monthly costs much lower than a power company bill.

Aesthetics/lifestyle
Being off grid is often part of a deeper “back to the land” aesthetic in which independence from “the man” (not only power companies) is key. It may be about being self-sufficient, about teaching kids to be green and not to take things for granted. It may be about having your own water supply, septic system and perhaps even growing your own food and raising animals. Having an off-grid electrical system, whether solar, wind or micro-hydro, certainly fits into this ethic.

Sample systems: 
Off-grid solar
The cost of installing an off-grid system depends on how much electricity needs to be produced. Along with propane, solar systems are one of the most popular sources of off-grid power, so we’ll use them as examples.

The $1,000–$1,500 option: This most basic type of system is for those who only need electricity for a few 12-volt lights and perhaps a 12-volt radio. The system will likely consist of a 140-watt solar panel, a 12-volt deep cycle or sealed AGM 100 amp-hour battery and a controller to regulate charging.

The $5,000–$10,000 option: Lars Jensen’s Integrated Power Systems provides DIY kits that are pre-approved total systems. However, they do require some electrical knowledge and the installation must pass an electrical inspection. This type of system will provide power to lights, stereo, microwave, vacuum and other 120-volt AC appliances, though not all can be operated at the same time unless users opt for the larger 4,000-watt inverter system. The kits include a few solar panels from 500 to 1,000 watts, a 2,000- to 4,000-watt inverter and up to four AGM batteries with a watt-hour capacity range from 4.6 to 9.3 kW of storage.

The $20,000 option: This could be called a whole cabin system and is the most popular price-point system sold by Shane Johnson’s SolarPanel.ca. The system includes about 2,000 watts of solar panels, a 7,200-watt dual 120/240-volt inverter system and a battery bank with a capacity of 1,200 amps at 48 volts. Johnson says the system provides enough to power most homes (and certainly cottages) with standard energy-efficient appliances such as a fridge, freezer, TV, lights, microwave, well pump and septic system pumps and a circulating pump for a wood- or propane-fired boiler for radiant in-floor heating. This whole-home system means that the owners can pretty well live as they would if they were hooked up to the grid. Note that solar systems do not generally provide electricity for direct household heating or domestic hot water. Those are normally generated either through rooftop solar water heating systems or through a separate propane-fired water heating system. The $20,000 cost does not include a 7–13 kW gas or diesel backup generator ($3,500–$11,500), which is necessary for those occasions when solar power can’t provide enough electricity.

The top-end system: Lars Jensen pegs a top-end off-grid system at between $30,000 and $70,000, which would provide enough electricity to power a luxury four-bedroom home and all its appliances at any time without any worries. These systems are significantly larger, with solar arrays ranging from 3,000 to 6,000 watts. The inverters range in capacity from 8.8 to 17.6 kW. The 48-volt battery bank would be about 2,400 amps.

With these larger systems, lots of good spacious southern exposure is needed as the solar arrays need a lot of room. Also, a larger mechanical room is required to house all the equipment. A generator, which may or may not be included in the package, would be between 12 and 30 kW.

Ongoing costs: Once an off-grid solar system is installed, the ongoing costs can vary quite a bit. There will be fuel and upkeep for the generator, propane and/or wood for cooking, heating and possibly domestic hot water. Batteries last about five to 10 years and, for a $20,000 system, cost about $5,000 to $8,000. Costs can range from as little as around $1,000 per year for Shane Johnson’s full-time home to $6,000 or more for areas heavily dependent on their generators.

Sample systems: 
Hooking up to the grid
When looking at the costs of hooking up to the grid, the greatest portion is getting the electricity from the nearest source of power to the cottage or cottage site. This can be done via underground or underwater wiring or through traditional power poles. It is almost impossible to ballpark prices for any of these hookups as there are so many varying factors that affect cost, including but not limited to the type of ground and the slope of the terrain. However, here are some really broad estimates.

Underground Wiring is the most expensive option. Duane Van Winkle recently brought in underground power 660 feet from the road to his cottage site in Caroline, Alberta. He got a pretty good deal and figures it cost him $5,000, which included the cable, power boxes, trenching and back filling (which didn’t require blasting). The special underground Tec cable (4/0 two-conductor aluminum) was the most expensive part, which Van Winkle says cost him about $5 per foot.

Power Poles  The cost of bringing in above-ground power is obviously dependent on distance and the type of ground. BC Hydro won’t ballpark costs, explaining that it depends on the type of pole, the height, the terrain, and who owns the pole (BC Hydro or BC Hydro and Telus). It also depends on whether single phase (single wire) or three phase (three wires) wiring is being strung. The maximum distance between poles is generally 230 feet. Bob Algers of Horizon Power on Vancouver Island estimates that to clear a right-of-way through the forest and to install poles in easy ground, expect to pay up to about $5,000 per pole. He figures that in areas where the right-of-way has been cleared, and the ground is easy, expect to pay up to $2,500 or $3,000 per pole. Depending on the electrical contractor and how much work they have on the books, costs can drop considerably as the distance increases beyond a few poles.

Underwater Power Lines are about the only option for anyone considering buying property on an island and hooking up to the grid. Bob Algers has ballparked the cost of underwater power lines at about $250,000 per kilometre. However, Algers warns that before laying cable, there is an approximately two-year paperwork nightmare to obtain approval from environmental, archaeological and fisheries authorities before he can get started. If and when those hurdles are overcome, Algers says, expect to pay up to about $80 per foot to run a 200-amp service (which involves transformers to step the voltage either up or down at each end). In relatively shallow freshwater lakes, where the permitting process is slightly less onerous, Algers says to expect to pay about $40 per foot, installed for the same service.

Grid-tie Systems  Grid-tie systems are designed to feed unused electricity generated from alternative energy sources, such as solar, back into the grid to reduce or eliminate utility bills. However, for off-grid cottages, it means paying for the power to be brought in as well as the cost of a grid-tie system. This is likely to double the cost of either a single off-grid or on-grid set-up.

Grid-tie systems are configured in one of two ways. The first uses batteries to store the energy (just like a regular off-grid system). The second has no storage batteries and simply feeds directly into the electrical grid whenever there is an excess.

Tying to the grid makes most sense for those with battery systems, because, every day, once the batteries are charged, the excess energy is essentially wasted (bled off).

Unfortunately, at this point in time the the capital cost of solar power doesn’t really justify the grid-tie returns. In British Columbia, BC Hydro has a net metering system and two tiers for rates, so the amount of credit received is based on how much power is used by the house and how much goes on to the grid. According to Lars Jensen, at about 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour, a $20,000 off-grid solar system with 5,000 watts of solar panels would produce about 5,700 kWh per year (based on 3.5 direct sunshine hours per day). This translates to about $1.40 per day if all the power produced was to go into the grid.

In Alberta, it perhaps makes even less economic sense for grid-tie systems. Shane Johnson notes that the average electrical bill in that province may include up to 50 percent of the total in various fees (such as gridline, municipal and so on) so that even if you’re not using any electricity, you still have to pay the monthly fees.

Where it really makes sense, explains Jensen, is for micro-hydro systems, which produce more electricity and produce it 24 hours a day. For example, a typical micro-hydro system can produce 3 kW or more per hour. Over a year this can add up to 26,280 kWh. At 9.9 cents this equals a return of $2,680.

In closing
Anyone considering buying a property and debating whether to go off grid or on grid should look at all the options very carefully. It’s usually easy to get someone from the local utility to provide an estimate on the cost of bringing in power. This can be compared to quotes from independent contractors who may be able to bring in power for less. Contractors can also estimate the cost of running underground power lines, though the numbers may change depending on how difficult it is to access the route and how long it takes to dig and fill the trench.

When it comes to estimating the cost of solar, be sure to shop around and talk to several potential suppliers. Here, reputation is more important than cost. Check references. Don’t shop around for best prices at box stores, buy various bits and pieces, then expect everything to be compatible. A good off-grid company will not only sell you the total system—not just the parts—but make sure it is installed and working properly. And, when something goes wrong, they’ll be there to fix it.