Off-Grid Power at Lone Bobcat Woods

Intro: Intrigued by the snippets I’ve mentioned in various Peak Moment Conversations, a viewer asked to learn more about how we live here at Lone Bobcat Woods. So I’ll do a series of blogs about that, starting with electricity.

We’ve been off-grid since we moved to the Sierra Nevada foothills in 2000. We had two goals affecting our choices: financial independence as soon as possible, and as energy-independent and sustainable as we could reasonably afford.

We bought raw land over a mile from the nearest power pole. The electrical utility said it would cost about $38,000 (in 1990 dollars) to run a line to our land and monthly bills forever after.

That gave us a great reason to go off-grid. Why pay that upfront cost PLUS ever-increasing utility rates, when we could be on renewables?

We did the research — that’s mostly Robyn, whose physics major came in very handy — and ended up with solar panels (photovoltaics ) and batteries. Alas, no year-round stream or winter winds, so we have a backup propane generator to charge batteries in winter.

090729_pv_house_430.jpgOur 24 solar panels give an average output of 3-5 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day. We use around 2 to 2.5 kWh a day. That’s 10% of the average American house. Check your utility bill. We read that the average household uses closer to 30 or 35 kilowatt hours a day. Could be less now, but I’d guess it’s still up in the 20-25 Kwh/day range.

How do we keep our usage so low? What appliances did we keep and which don’t we have? Do we miss any of them? What’s it like, living on a limited electricity budget? I’ll answer that in an upcoming blog.

090729_batts_250.jpgIn a small room we have about a dozen forklift batteries. They store enough electricity for us to go 4 to 6 days in cloudy winter weather before they need to be charged (by the sun or the backup generator). There’s also an inverter to change battery power (DC) to house power (AC) and some monitoring equipment.

Our entire system cost $25,000 (1990 dollars). We saved money over grid power at the get-go, and no monthly payments. Actually, the batteries need to be replaced after some years, so their cost amortized across the years is pretty comparable to a low monthly power bill.

Does our system actually cost less than being on grid power? Not counting the $38,000 initial outlay, probably it costs a little bit more (mostly for the batteries). But we are not relying on somebody else for that power spigot, and we never have power-outages (which happen up here in the foothills at least once a winter, and sometimes for up to a week).

We are electricity self-reliant. Yes, our system employs a renewable energy source (the sun). But no electricity user is truly independent of fossil fuel energy: we all depend on industrial society for the equipment. We have replaced batteries twice (and, unlucky us, some dead solar panels).

We may not be vulnerable to outages and monthly price increases, but self-reliance means we’re watching our usage. And we must be mindful to monitor and maintain our equipment.

I like the mindfulness, actually. It keeps me in touch with nature. How so? We’re watching the weather (how many cloudy days? What’s the battery level?). We’re watching the daily sun cycle (run the washing machine or iron while sun is on the panels — more efficient). We’re watching the seasons (in summer we have excess electricity, so we relax our watchfulness).

It’s freeing, and it’s also work, to be electricity self-reliant. I like not being vulnerable to utility-company supply and price increases. I’m okay with doing the work ourselves (more about that later). And mostly, there’s a comfort in knowing we can live quite comfortably on 10% of the electricity of the average American home, because we do.

Coming: How do we keep our electricity usage so low?

Comments

  1. A bit confused here… you have 24 panels but only produce 3-5 kWh/day? I have 5 panels and produce that kind of power… something doesn’t add up. Yes, I am off grid too, in the Santa Cruz mountains.

    • Ian, these panels were manufactured in the early 1990s. They’re rated at 60 watts each. The newer panels, probably like you have, and what we now have on our motorhome roof, are rated at about double that (and are larger, also). The 3-5 kWh/day is also because we have limited solar exposure due to trees in the south of our meadow.

  2. People is being aware now than ever that we need greener energy sources. You can see mass movement around the world about this topic. I guess is mother nature claiming its earth back.

  3. I really liked the way you wrote this article. It often helps to get hold a decent guide and set of plans before undertaking a DIY solar panel project. Nigel

  4. We will try the power strip idea. I have done it before however we have so few appliances now we just plug them in when we want to use them. This works great for lights but I’ve found that other items like the stove and air conditioner we get lazy and forget the plug…I think this is where a switch would really come in handy! 🙂

  5. Good finds, Logan.

    Hunting for the “phantom loads” was one of our first electricity exercises. The inverter was supposed to shut down when the load was below a certain level. Why didn’t it?

    We found the same kind of things you did. Plus my older sewing machine (just plugged in, not turned on). And of course most peoples’ television sets.

    Our (first) gas stove had all of the same electric devices — plus this huge electric “glow bar” used to periodically relight the propane oven. Talk about sucking electrons!

    So in response we’re plug-strip users. Each of our workspaces has a plug strip for all electrical devices (which aren’t all plugged in, either). Plus the stereo/dvd player center.

    Your idea of keeping water in the freezer and refrigerator is smart. These big “thermal masses” will hold the cold for you. That’s the same principle that John Weber uses to HOLD in heat during the winter — huge aquariums placed by south-facing windows to catch the sun’s warmth. (“Resourceful Guy Builds Solar House, Solar Power, Solar Car”, episode 145).

    Thanks for asking about how we keep things cool (and warm in winter). I’ll make an entry about that. Next up, though: appliance choices.

  6. I used your advice and I looked around for devices that, as you mentioned, run “a long time” and I came up with a few (besides the coolers) that potentially draw power continuously:

    1. Wireless internet router
    2. Our Gas Oven has a clock and a light and electric ignition and is not energy star rated.
    3. Box Fan
    4. Gadget battery chargers that have been left in the outlets (e.g. cell phone, laptop, ipod, etc)

    We don’t have a water heater in the apartment so I’m wondering if we pay a share of the apartment complex water heater bill. I will have to ask my apartment manager. Recently for the fridge we put in about 8 gallons of water in containers and about 5 gallons of water in the freezer. We never used all of that space in the huge refrigerator and we had read that a “full” freezer and refrigerator were more efficient than empty ones due to the effects of “stored radiant energy”. They are supposed to work similar to ice packs in a cooler chest to keep things cool. The ol’ ice box strategy I suppose. What do you and Robyn think of this strategy? 🙂

  7. Hi Logan,
    Yes, air conditioning, like refrigeration, sucks a lot of electrons because those appliances are running a long time. 3kWh/day isn’t bad for the winter…So the question might be: look around — what else uses power?

    What else have you wondered about? Send those questions….and of course, visit!

    Janaia

  8. Wow! This is great! I have also pondered questions about your homestead. I am looking forward to this series of posts! I checked our electricity consumption as you suggested and it appears we use about 9 kWh/day during peak usage in the summer (mostly the air conditioning for the cats) and we use about 3 kWh/day during the winter (our heat and cooking is natural gas). The air conditioner and refrigerator are the main power hogs in our 400 sq ft. apt. I’ll be interested to read in your future posts how you and Robyn keep things cool on an energy budget. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Cheers,
    Logan.

Leave a Reply to janaia Cancel reply

*