Is it possible to live off-grid?
As interest grows in self-sufficient, sustainable communities, and fears over Europe’s reliance on gas imports increase, more and more people are considering moving “off-grid”.
Pioneering companies are already building radical high-tech eco-villages, with waiting lists for these homes numbering in the thousands. Technology is smarter, more efficient and cheaper than ever before, which makes these eco-homes a reality for those who can afford them. But has the technology become mainstream enough to be realistic for the rest of us?
Our gas and electricity supply infrastructures, called grids, are centralised systems that distribute energy to where it is needed. Supply and demand are carefully matched and with the grid often buys excess renewable energy from consumers to keep it fully fed during energy lulls.
Detaching from this grid means losing that safety net – and this has long been the problem for those with off-grid aspirations. Until recently an off-grid life meant severely limiting energy use when the sun wasn’t shining or the wind wasn’t blowing. Now, energy storage technology is becoming so advanced that we can store excess rays and gusts for the darker and calmer hours, rather than sell the extra energy back to the grid. But given that the storage problem is being solved, the question of whether we can produce enough energy remains.
The key to producing enough energy to live off-grid is to use a range of solutions. The average family’s energy consumption varies depending on where they live. On the US mainland, for example, it is around 30 kilowatt hours a day but in Hawaii it is just half of this. In colder countries such as the UK, where the average family uses around 125 kilowatt hours a day, heating homes requires a lot of energy.
But there are many options out there to keep us warm, the simplest of which is burning biomass (wood and other organic matter). Solar thermal collectors and ground source heat pumps allow us to extract natural heat from our surroundings to heat water systems. These can be quite expensive to buy, costing several thousands of pounds but are efficient and, as a longer-term investment, will pay for themselves after several years. It’s also possible turn waste cooking oils into environmentally friendly biodiesel to be used as heating oil or vehicle fuel.
Going off-grid for our gas can even help us solve two problems at once. From dog poo to a famous London fatberg, businesses are making good use of our waste – and so can you. A home-ready anaerobic digester will turn your food waste, waste-water and sewage into enough gas to cook your meals. At around £700, any saving from the gas produced would not come close to breaking even for decades, but it is a great way to produce biogas and fertiliser while dealing with waste.
Satisfying the electricity needs of our modern lifestyles, wherever we live, is more tricky. Solar is currently the most popular choice – a typical system to power the average UK family home would cost around £8,000. Taking into account maintenance costs, you could break even within about eight years. Wind makes less sense for the individual household. A roof-mounted turbine provides less than a quarter of the roughly 45,000 kilowatt hours UK households use in a year, while if you’re fortunate enough to have the space for a full-size 6kW turbine, it’ll set you back at least £20,000 and could take the whole lifespan of the turbine to cover its costs.