The learning curve is still curving


A recent visitor asked about off-the-grid living and inquired as to how the latest in technology for generating electricity was making life so idyllic.  He also mentioned communications, “Oh! The huge advances in communications must be a boon for you, too, eh?”

Hard to answer that, really.  But, I’ll try.  Let’s start with the ‘latest’ technology in generating juice.  There really hasn’t been any.

Of course, we have solar panels and wind turbines and, if you are lucky enough to have a stream nearby, you can employ a mini-hydro plant but all of that is rather old technology (by the standards we use to measure tech advancement these days).

Solar panels have been around for as long as I can remember.  We had solar panels in the consumer world in the 80’s.  Wind turbines were ubiquitous in the early 20th century and they have been a staple in Popular Mechanics magazine since I was a kid.  Mini-hydro is a smidge more modern, I suppose, but not by much and certainly not when you consider that water-mills were used to do work in medieval times.  And hippies in the 70’s were using waterwheels in streams to turn car alternators to charge batteries.  So, where, exactly, is the BIG advancement?

If there has been a BIG advancement it is has been in cost.  When I bought my solar panels 8 years ago, I was lucky to get them for $6.00 a watt.  An 80 watt panel was $500 and there would be another $500 in ‘add-ons’ from the mounting brackets to the taxes.  Today, the panels sell for as little as $1.50 a watt.  So, that is an ‘advancement’ of sorts.

But that may not save you much money even today.  Here’s why.  The price of copper has leapt.  To run the same cable I have going from my panels to the house would cost me five times more.  I paid around $2/300 eight years ago.  Couldn’t buy it today for less than $1000.  And panels need wiring.  So new panels are cheaper, the wiring and additional structure is more expensive.

But it is more than that.  The cost of your system is not the primary issue.  The important thing is that it works efficiently, reliably and that it is in balance.  There is little point in having a dozen solar panels with only one battery.  No point whatsoever in having a 15 kw genset with a 20 amp charger.  Of all the systems I have encountered in my life, the self-generation of power is the hardest to balance, the least dependable in it’s behaviour and the most reliant on usually incompatible components.  Let me explain………

I consulted an electrical engineer friend when I was first planning my system eight or nine years ago.  Told him that my house would likely require 2500 watts of power most of the time, 5 kw when I was working everything I had.  He strongly advised a 15 Kw genset.  Seemed overkill to me and I said so.  “Dave, everyone thinks they are going to use less and they always use more.  It is the way of things.”

So I bought a 15 kw genset.  And it was a mistake.  I only need a 5 kw genset.  His expertise was simply not ‘off-the-grid’ based.  He was thinking like an electrical consultant to someone in the city.  I work to minimize my electrical requirements, urban people unthinkingly just add more demands.  Different mindset.  My genset is too big.

And windpower…… the concept…….but it doesn’t work like they say.  In order to sell the turbine you are given information that may be accurate in a testing environment but is not so true in real life.  My wind turbine works and puts out juice but at a rate so much less than intimated by the ads. It’s primary purpose is as a battery maintenance charger.  It provides only a trickle charge 95% of the time and that is very useful, especially when we are away. I was hoping for the higher charge that comes only 5% of the time.  A neighbour has a much larger turbine in a windier spot and is quite pleased with his very expensive set up.  But in a nutshell, consumer installed wind turbines are fickle and under performing.  They are definitely not cost effective.  I wouldn’t do it again.

Those mistakes could and should be attributed to me and me alone.  I made the decisions.  But batteries are simply a major weak link in the system and it seems that no one has a handle on it.  Right now there is no good solution to that weak link.  We are all still using battery technology from the first world war.  Lead acid batteries are still the common in-use battery due to cost and availability and they are heavy, usually built to poor-by-our-needs standards and not in the least efficient. 

For the record: Surette batteries are the best available in the consumer world.  Most people can’t afford them.

Of course, I am always reading about some MIT breakthrough in featherlight fifteen-year batteries made from spent uranium or something.  Technology is marching along.  Like fuel cells.  But they will not likely happen in my lifetime.  Like fuel cells.  Someday, perhaps.  But not now.  Not in the near future.  Face it – lead acid, heavy, clumsy, shoddily built, inefficient batteries are going to be part of your system.  And that alone makes it less than ideal.

It is still all well worth it, tho.  And necessary.  Generating our own power is a good thing.  It makes us feel independent even if we are still dependent on fuel and parts for the genset.  And damn batteries!  But the idea is right.  The concept good.  Get off-the-grid! 

And technology may eventually get us there cheaply, reliably and efficiently.  But this is not a fast advancing technology.  It is not a comprehensive, integrated technology.  And it is not a technology that is – as yet – completely user friendly.

I strongly advise getting your feet wet with it, tho.  Even if you just develop a short-term system (capable of say, running your house for a day?), it would be a great way to get through a power failure – by not having one!  Employ some alternative energy system even if you are in an urban setting.  It will amaze you.  But, to be blunt, it ain’t easy, cheap or viably competitive with BC Hydro.

Not yet, anyway.


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