Though the media and politicians push hard for more environmentally friendly options for power production, is solar ready for most homesteaders to jump on board?
Of course, the answer to this question is, “it depends.”
Are your motivations to reduce your carbon footprint? Or a backup to save tons of headaches in outages or emergencies? Do costs matter much?
Solar panel costs have come down a ton in the last several years. Take your monthly power bill that you currently have and look for your monthly and daily usage in KWH (Kilawatt Hours). Also take note of your power usage in the most energy intensive part of the year (probably summer with AC or winter with heating). Now determine what you can live without to cut down your usage. Are you currently heating your house with electricity? Can you switch to wood heat? Are you using incandescent lightbulbs still? Time to switch to LED. Is your refrigerator fairly old? Switching to a modern fridge will save electricity in no time. Heating your water with electricity? Look into a hybrid (heat pump) water heater or tankless water heaters (a hybrid is cheaper and uses less electricity if you have the requirements). Propane water heaters are also an option.
Once you come up with your estimated electricity usage for the worst part of the year, calculate how many panels you will need. If your house is on Google’s Project Sunroof, that is a simple way to calculate this. Otherwise, you can use the app Lumos to calculate how much sun you can get depending upon your tree placement and whether you should have a ground or roof mounted system.
Do you get a ton of wind regularly (such as at the coast or in a prairie)? Look into wind turbines as well. Have a year round creek on your place and water rights? Hydropower is the most economical and reliable of all home energy. Once you figure out if your property can have solar (if you would have to take out trees or get enough sun to make it worth it), you then must decide what type of solar system you wish to have: Off Grid, Grid Interactive, or Grid Tied.
Are you buying land without power connection yet? Is power a half a mile or more away? You can get a quote from your power company, but in this instance, if it costs more than several thousand dollars, you likely are better off with an off grid solar system financially. Being off the grid comes with pros and cons.
- Not at all dependent upon the power company to have electricity
- No power bill ever again
- More expensive
- Batteries may need maintenance depending upon battery type
- If something goes wrong or you do not get enough sun in the winter, you need a gas or diesel generator to keep electricity
Already have power from the power company and do not care about occasional outages? A Grid Tied solar system is the most popular installation these days with solar being back fed to the power grid to offset your electrical bill. Many grid tied inverters have a backup receptacle for offgrid use if the grid goes down. Make sure to look into this if you care about keeping your refrigerator or other small devices powered in an outage.
- Least Expensive
- Keep the simplicity of staying on the grid and do not worry about not getting enough sun for your electrical usage
- No more power bill if your power company supports net metering and you have enough solar
- No electricity in a power blackout (unless limited power is supported during the daytime by your inverter via an offgrid receptacle).
- If no net metering, this provides little benefit financially.
This is the best of both Grid Tied and Off Grid except the upfront cost. This system allows you to still use the grid but be independent of power outages. Your batteries do not have to be as big as offgrid use if you are willing to live without some appliances when the grid is down.
- Keep the reliability of the grid (no longer worry about no sun or electrical usage)
- No power bill if net metering is an option and enough solar
- Stay independent from power outages still with an inverter that turns off backfeeding to the grid but still powers the house during an outage (Most self sufficient of the three options)
- If net metering is available but ever is dropped by your power company, you can easily switch to off grid usage should you no longer wish to pay a power bill.
- More expensive than Grid Tied and off grid
- If no net metering is available, you still have to pay at least some of a power bill
Figure out your priorities.
Reducing carbon footprint or minimal cost? Grid Tied is the way to go. Get a secure power option and maybe some usb power packs for a limited backup to charge phones and lighting.
Backup for power outages but not off grid? Grid interactive. Or grid Tied with secure power backup and a generator if finances are limited.
Complete independence from the power company? Off Grid
Doing the research and installing solar yourself can save you a ton of money but does take extensive research and time. Look up diy companies like Wholesale Solar who can give you basic diy info and can help support you through the installation if you order from them.
I bought my solar panels from someone on Craigslist and tested each before purchasing. Doing this saved me quite a bit of money but does come with risks of its own (probably does not include a warranty from the solar manufacturers). I got my panels for around $0.30 a watt which was around a third of retail price at the time.
More grid tied inverters are adding backup options while the sun is shining. Some SunnyBoy, Solar Edge, and soon Enphase IQ8 inverters will have these capabilities even without expensive batteries. But do your research and find what works for you.
Solar is getting more affordable every year. Get quotes from multiple sources and do the math to see if it makes sense for you.