Ask LH: Should I Move Off The Grid In Australia?

Dear Lifehacker, Is it more difficult to live an 'off the grid' lifestyle in Australia? From intensitycamel

Off-Grid photo by Shutterstock.com

Dear intensitycamel,

You might be happy to hear that Australia actually has a number of healthy off-grid communities. Thanks to the extreme remoteness of many of the communities in inland Australia, off-grid living is essential for around 2 per cent of our population. In areas of Western Australia and island communities off Tasmania, entire communities live off the grid, forming mini-grids that are powered by a combination of solar, wind and diesel generators. Unfortunately the latter is often required to bear the brunt of the load, especially when renewable energy sources are unreliable — and the high price of diesel and liquid fuels is what makes off-grid living more expensive, and generally not suitable for non-rural dwellings.

Urban Off-Grid Living

Urban off-grid living isn't impossible, of course, but it could be uncomfortable. A US team calling themselves the "Sustainable Joes" conducted an experiment back in 2013 when they disconnected their London, Ontario apartment from the grid for four months to live a 'zero impact' lifestyle. Even with the help of a couple of solar panels and a small battery and inverter package, they still had to forgo a fridge and stove, only generating enough power from their solar panels to charge their phones and run a blender to make smoothies. Both photovoltaic technology and battery storage are getting cheaper and more efficient with each passing year, however, and it's possible that urban off-grid living will become feasible in the years to come. Larger urban and suburban properties would have the ability to generate more solar electricity than a small apartment, of course, yet it's still unlikely that it could generate quite enough to power the entire house.

Rural Off-Grid Living

For many people in extremely remote areas, off-grid living is already a reality. Others in less remote rural areas who are still connected or city-dwellers who are considering a 'tree change' may be tempted to leave the grid themselves, however. Gifted with a wealth of space when compared to urban areas, investment in on-site generation could easily make rural off-grid dwellings self-sufficient even with today's technology. Investments both in wind and solar power could feasibly provide enough energy for a rural property to support itself, although as with most contemporary off-grid settlements, a diesel or fuel-based generator is usually required as backup in case of bad weather or insufficient generation from renewable sources.

Sustainable On-Grid Alternatives

Unfortunately, it's still far more expensive with today's technology to move off-grid than to stay on, and even houses with solar panels installed can benefit from a grid connection with the ability to sell excess energy back to the grid. Smart energy services like Reposit Power will even set up an entire system for you, enabling you to make the most from your excess energy as they sell it back to the grid at times of high demand — and thus at a higher price.

If, like a lot of people looking into off-grid living, you're disillusioned with your current power supplier, you could supplement your generated electricity with a connection to a power company like Powershop — who are doing things a little differently. Instead of selling energy with locked-in plans and contracts, Powershop sells 'powerpacks' in their online shop. You can buy your electricity whenever you want, even buying excess when it's cheap and hoarding it for coming months — much in the same way as prepaid mobile phone credit works. You can even buy 'GreenPower' packs, and help encourage national investment in renewables. So unless the environmental benefits of living sustainably outweigh the financial cost in your eyes, you're better to stay connected until we see greater improvement in home renewable energy generation.

Cheers, Lifehacker

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Comments

    Urban Ontario is quite different to urban Australian cities. Their experiment may not have had the desired results but that doesn't mean the same outcome will be achieved in Australia.

    Also, living in Australia you have to pay the energy company for the wire that travels past your house even if it's not connected, so you'll always pay the power company.

      Yes, someone really aught to be hung for that..

      Sorry Barry, where are you getting this information??? I have been off grid in Oxley Brisbane Australia, since 2011 and I pay nothing. If you are not connected to the grid you do not pay!!!! This is a false rumour, but not fact, I also know of a few other locals, also off grid that pay nothing, so please don't spread this false information, to help the greedy power companies!! If you want to know how to be off grid just ask. This whole article is wrong. I have a 360litre fridge, 188 litre deep freezer, all led lighting, 32 and 42 inch LCD TV. Toaster, slow cooker, unfortunately a gas oven and cooktop, (going induction). No microwave yet, but waiting on the new ones from freescale. Cordless vacuum. No aircon yet but i use fans. Washing machine. All for FIFTEEN dollars a week. O yes ALL LIFEPO4 Batteries too. So it is 100% possible today for cheaper than being on the grid. Fact you now pay $467 per year just to be connected to the grid!!!

      Sorry I also forgot my latest and greatest addition, PV Solar electric hot water. Been running that for 9 months successfully over winter. So zero gas for hot water now. I run it up to 84 degrees Celsius, and since summer it is there by 10.30am. ;-) so off grid is easy and possible today. But to answer your question intensitycamel self relience (off grid) is more difficult than relying on someone else. You will have to put in more effort but it is rewarding. Both for the environment and your wallet. Action always wins!!!

    I don't think that's true. If you don't have an account, there's no charge. (No charge, see what I did there?)
    But seriously, you have to pay if you have an account even if you use 0 electricity (but you could if you want). If you have no account and aren't connected, you don't have the option to use their infrastructure and aren'y charged for it.

      I looked into it about a year ago and yep it was true then. If the wires travel past your house even if you don't have an account with that company or you're off the grid, you are charged for that wire. I'm not sure if it is charged by the state government or the power company though.

        Not sure how the company can charge you if you don't have a contract.

    Its a bit disappointing that this article doesn't go into any depth into what is a very pertinent question for Australia right now, what with the announcement of Tesla batteries imminent arrival, Samsung batterie’s current rollout, and the face that 9 out of 10 Australia households either have solar, are considering solar, or would consider installing solar.

    Being a Lifehacker lurker I thought I would contribute my thoughts.

    First scenario- if you don't own the property, don't go off grid. Its frustratingly hard for renters to investigate any way to generate any electricity, let alone enough to live off grid.
    (here we discover yet another problem with housing affordability in australia- its knock on effects to energy production. Why would a landlord invest money to put solar electricity on their rentals- its an expense that doesn't gain them anything. so thanks to tax concessions for investment properties, not only do we have a higher property market, we have less home generated solar.)

    If you are renting, and want to investigate generating some sweet watts but not breaking your lease, check out the concept of guerrilla solar http://solar4living.com/guerrillaSolar.htm
    I wouldn't recommend it unless you have high level of confidence in your own electrical knowledge, but it makes for fascinating reading.

    Second scenario- if you are building your own property - having the electricity not connected is a real possibility. If you're building in a remote area, the cost of getting the power line out to your property can be staggering. The long term economics of no power bills, coupled with the big fee to install traditional electricity, means RAPS (remote alternative power supply) is looking even more tempting. This is a time to consider definitely going off grid.

    Third scenario- If you are on the grid and you do own your own home- i would recommend installing solar panels and dabbling in grid connected solar, before going whole hog and disconnecting altogether. It'd be worth paying extra for an inverter with the possibility of battery storage, so that expense doesn't occur twice. But before you disconnect- realistically, what do you want by being off the grid? independence from power bills? the ability to have lights on when its a blackout?
    These can be achieved without disconnecting from the grid, and I would prefer you to stay connected as I think grid connected solar is the future for Australia.

    (anyone who mentions wildly fluctuation outputs and unreliable generation, and the necessity of base load power- yes, i'm aware of this -but this is not insurmountable. We are faced with an engineering problem and its being treated as a business problem while the privately owned power companies are trying to hold onto a business model. I hope that the long term solution -a combo of great satellite data (giving us the ability to accurately predict solar energy generated in real time) smart appliances (grid connected fridges/hot water heaters that can tweak their usage around grid demand) and an energy aware society (same thing has happened to water use) will create a scenario where grid connected solar powers the majority of australians energy needs.)

    The technology to go off grid has existed for a long time. I grew up in remote WA in a house that was off-grid in the 90's with only 300w of solar panels and some ex-telecom batteries.
    There were no LED lights so it was pretty inefficient. Most appliances are MORE energy efficient now so energy cost to usage has gone way down.

    The article talks about “sufficient energy” but doesn’t really go into what that is. Its hard talking about numbers of kw/hr or minimum battery bank sizes because it doesn't really translate into something that relates to everyday life.
    So i’ll give you some examples of sufficient energy/insufficient energy on a 90’s system.

    In winter, if we had 3 or 4 days of rainy cloudy days with no sun, it got pretty dire. There was no point draining our second-hand batteries too much to prove a point so we would fire up the generator and recharge the batteries. This would happen probably only twice or three times a season, but still more than we’d have liked.

    Even in summer, our usage was dependant on time of day.
    Daytime- you have more energy than you can harness. so you run the washing machine, the hot water heater, the iron, a shredder, power tools, anything you like.
    (hey, but my washing machine is rated at more than 300w! i smell a rat! The energy rating is the maximum current that appliance will draw- it doesn’t draw that for the whole time in operation. and yes, for some moments it would draw current from the batteries AND the panels- those bloody irons were a culprit!)

    Night time- you are living off battery storage. So you had a limited amount of electricity till the next day. Usage was determined by it’s priority -
    1. lights 2. fridge 3. entertainment [radio, tv, cd player (ahh the 90’s)] 4: anything else (vacuuming, using a blender etc)

    We had a voltage display right next to the kitchen so we could check up on the stored power before we decided to vacuum at night, for example. And we wore a lot of wrinkly shirts.

    Lets just re-assert that this technology has remarkably improved over the last 20 years. And the level of lifestyle change required now is not as big- a modest 2.4kw array is over 8 times as powerful as the one we had. And battery storage has improved a lot.

    but the basic lesson is the same. You can use any technology you want, just be aware every night you have a limited number of energy units- don’t cash them all in on using an iron or an air conditioner otherwise you won’t have any lights!

    This is why i think grid connected with home battery storage solar is the future. At peak sun there is more electricity being generated than can be stored in your battery bank. and no one will be home using all the power- they’ll be at work. so the extra might as well flow into the grid. And at Nighttime you can bask in the glow of your 12 watt LED lights pumping out the lumens from the day’s sun.

      Just wanted to update a mistake i made- we had a 600watt solar array growing up, so a 2.4kw system is only 4 times as powerful.

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