Why having solar panels doesn't make you "off the grid"

by Andrew Meyer
September 28, 2015
Off-The-Grid

You’ve heard of going “off the grid.” But what does it actually mean? “Going off the grid” means disconnecting entirely from your utility company’s electrical supply. A common misconception is that this can be accomplished simply by buying solar panels. In reality, if you don’t have a home solar battery, solar panels make you more connected and dependent on the grid than ever before. In fact, without a solar battery, when your grid experiences a power outage, your solar panels shut off.

This article explains how to use a home solar battery to truly go off the grid, and how to do it in a way that constantly saves you money while giving you more independence and even protection against blackouts and power outages.

To start, a little bit of background on how solar panels work...

Solar panels generate electricity from sunlight. It’s awesome. Once installed, solar panels require minimal maintenance and usually last over 25 years. That’s a quarter century of clean, free electricity.

Solar panels only generate electricity during the day when the sun is out. Any appliances, lights, or plugs that are using electricity during the day will use solar energy. But during the day most people aren’t home using electricity, so most of the electricity from solar panels goes back onto the electrical grid. In some cases, your utility pays you for that extra energy, but that means solar panels are actually dependent on the utility grid, just like your home appliances. When the grid goes down, so do your solar panels.

For grid-tied solar panels, grid failure means solar failure, so without more, solar panels can’t take you off grid. Even if they could work while the grid were down, you would still have a big problem: since solar panels only generate electricity during the day, you would be left in the dark all night. Not ideal.

What is going “off grid”?

Going off grid requires more than just solar panels. Going off grid requires a way to store and manage electricity usage so that during the night, or on cloudy days, you still have electricity. In short, going off grid requires a home solar battery.

With a home battery and solar panels, you can generate all of the electricity you need with solar panels, and then store extra electricity in your solar battery for when you want electricity but your solar panels aren’t generating any electricity. A home solar battery is like a power reservoir. Water reservoirs continuously provide water, to overcome the intermittency of natural water flows. Home batteries ensure continuous power in an off-grid home, overcoming the intermittency of natural solar flows.

Should I go off grid?

Now that we understand what is required to go off grid, the question becomes: should I go off grid? In most cases, the answer is no.

Getting solar panels is a no-brainer in most States. They save you money, reduce your environmental impact, and require no attention or effort. For any given home, there is an optimal sized solar system. Experts like Swell can analyze your energy usage and roof space, and provide you with a system design optimized to reduce your energy costs.

However, to go off grid and ensure you have enough energy, you need a significantly larger solar system than is optimal for saving money. Because you need to generate enough energy to get you through the night and a string of cloudy days, you’ll have to fork over significantly more money on a solar installation. While Swell can finance most installations so that you can pay $0 down, these larger systems may go past the point of saving you money.

In addition to a larger and more expensive solar installation, you will also need a large solar home battery that can hold enough energy to get you through the night and long strings of cloudy days.

So should I go off grid? Notwithstanding the upfront cost, many people should consider going off grid. Do you relate to any of the following statements?

1. I value my independence.

Solar + home battery = total energy self-sufficiency. If this is something you value, then going off grid is for you.

2. I value 100% clean energy.

The only way to truly use 100% clean energy is to go off grid with solar panels and a home battery. With only solar, you generate clean energy, but you are still reliant on the electrical grid and its dirty fossil fuel energy. With solar and a battery, you generate, store, and use all of your own clean energy.

3. I live in a remote area.

City dwellers don’t have to think about getting a utility connection, but in more rural areas, getting connected to the utility grid actually costs money--a lot of money. In many cases, it will cost significantly more to pay for a utility connection than a solar + home battery solution. If you are in this category, you should consider going off grid.

Grid independence: The alternative to going off the grid

In summary, it may not be practical for many people to go completely off the grid. However, there is a middle ground between complete grid dependence and disconnecting from the grid entirely. We like to call this “grid independence.”

By adding a home solar battery to your solar installation, or even just adding a home battery without solar, you can stay on the grid while becoming independent from the negative aspects of the grid as needed. Here’s how grid independence with a battery can help most homeowners:

1. Never lose power again. With a home battery, you can disconnect from the grid when it fails and turn your home into a self-sufficient energy island. If there is a power outage, a home battery will provide instant backup power to your home. When paired with solar panels, you can survive “off grid” until the utility grid is fixed, with the solar panels providing power and charging your battery during the day, and your battery providing power at night.

2. Save money. When your utility power is fully operational, your solar battery can also take in and store power when it is at its cheapest (usually between 2AM and 6AM) and then use it later when cost-per-watt is higher. The cost-per-watt is often 3x more at 4PM vs. 4AM. In some states, adding a battery to solar panels can also enhance savings from solar.

3. Make money. The electrical grid is going through rapid, fundamental changes, and home batteries will soon be able to make money for homeowners. During times of high demand, like on the hottest summer days, utilities will pay homeowners for the electricity stored in their batteries. Around the country, utilities are creating the compensation mechanisms to allow homeowners with batteries to make money. Soon, there will even be a shared energy network where individuals and businesses can buy and sell power to each other, making and saving more money and creating a sharing economy for energy, just like Airbnb and Uber.

Conclusion

If you’re interested in the idea of going off grid, but it doesn’t make sense for you to do so completely, adding a solar battery to your home may be the optimal solution. You can save money while being independent when and where you need it. It also opens up the possibility for a shared energy network, where individuals can buy and sell power to each other.

There’s no need to become an energy hermit to feel independent. Contact Swell to see whether adding a home battery makes sense for you.

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