June 2009: To tie, or not to tie?

June 2009: To tie, or not to tie?

It’s easy to talk about getting off the grid, but how many of us would actually do it? As Fred Oesch’s first residential client who wanted to live completely disconnected from utility systems, Debbie Davis is unusually committed to her green goals. “In general principle, she wanted to be off the grid,” says Oesch. “That was an objective right up front. I salute her for that.”

Davis’ 15 solar panels provide almost all the power she needs. She has a backup propane generator, of which she says “My goal is not to have it come on.”

For folks who want to make their own electricity with photovoltaic panels, the decision about whether to tie into the public grid is a key one. Making power and then storing it in a battery bank, as Davis does, means a much larger investment (batteries are roughly a third of the total cost), and the manufacturing of the batteries has an impact on the environment. “Batteries are the weak link in the current technology,” says Oesch. On the other hand, if homeowners opt to tie into the grid, they get to sell excess power back to the utility company—but they’re vulnerable to blackouts along with the rest of us. For that reason, says Oesch, “I usually recommend a small battery backup system.”

For Davis, the choice to go off the grid is a way of expressing her hope that more people will be able to afford the technology in the future. The $35,000 cost of her system means she’s truly put her money where her mouth is, but it’s also a way to achieve autonomy. “It’s a good feeling. If there’s a bad snowstorm or thunderstorm, I’m all cosy and my house will be warm,” she says. Spending half an hour, once a month, adding water to her 16 batteries is the only chore associated with maintaining the system.

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Davis would like to go further, eventually adding a solar hot-water system. “It will cut back on my propane [use],” she says. “That will be the next step.”

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