Woolwich, Maine - Solar Power
A grid-tied solar electric system recently installed on a barn in Woolwich, Maine

There is a common misconception than being “off the grid” is the ultimate goal is sustainability and that off-grid homes are, by their nature, greener and more energy efficient than conventional “on the grid” homes.

Many people say they want to get “off the grid,” when really what they mean is that they want to reduce their energy usage and switch to renewable forms of energy.

The good news – you don’t have to be “off the grid” to enjoy the benefits of renewable energy!

In fact, your conventional home is only a few smart steps away from dramatically shrinking its carbon footprint. We’ll talk about this in a moment – first, let’s demystify “off the grid” versus “grid tied.”

What Does Off-Grid Really Mean?

“Off grid” just means a home that is not connected to the utility grid. While these homes are often designed to be more energy-efficient and sustainable than conventional homes, there is no requirement in the term “off grid” that makes them so.

In fact, a home that is “off grid” can be just as much of a power hog as a regular home, and use a gasoline-powered generator for all of their electric needs. Hardly green OR renewable!

The reality is that power generated off the grid is significantly more expensive, KW/hr to KW/hr, as power generated while tied to the grid. The grid has numerous efficiencies of scale – from generation to transmission – that isn’t achieved in an off-grid set-up.

Because electricity generated off the grid is so expensive, it only makes sense that these homes should use less power. It’s pure economics!

So Why Would Anyone Go Off-Grid in the First Place?

When people think of “off grid,” they probably think of images from the early days of solar power, when people were moving far out in the country to get back to the land and live a more sustainable existence.

Of course, moving far away from civilization brings its own share of challenges and environmental implications. Unless you’re planning to become a hermit, you still are going to need roads to get to your off-grid home, and won’t you want some sort of electricity?

Creating power lines is expensive and destructive. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars per mile to run power lines to a distant homestead.

In these situations, where connecting to the utility grid will easily outweigh the costs of a clean, renewable energy system, being off the grid can make economic and environmental sense.

Most People Don’t Live Far From Power Lines

Most people live near other people, which means that most people don’t need the hassles and expense of an off-grid renewable energy system.

Instead, we can install a solar power electrical system that interacts with the grid – offsetting our home’s energy use and providing surplus power to our neighbors. In effect, we are becoming our own miniature power plant!

This kind of system is called grid-tied solar power.

What Makes Grid-Tied Different than Off-grid?

Grid-tied solar electricity is a much simpler set-up than off grid. In both cases, you have photovoltaic (PV) panels which generate clean, renewable energy when exposed to sunshine.

However, in a grid-tied set-up this power goes straight to your utility meter while in an off-grid set-up there are a few more steps.

With a grid-tied system, any excess power generated from the solar panels goes back into the grid – helping your neighbors reduce their carbon footprint!

In essence, you are treating the grid as if it was one big battery, charging it when you have excess power, and taking energy when you need more.

If an off-grid setup, you also need somewhere to store your solar energy.  Without the grid nearby, you need to buy a large set of batteries.

Unfortunately, battery technology is not as clean and renewable as the electricity generated by the solar panels.

The batteries used in most off-grid installations are lead acid batteries – similar to what starts your car and powers forklifts. As you probably know from the explosion warning stickers on your car battery, the inside of these types of batteries are extremely toxic, and their production is an energy intensive and environmentally harmful process.

While those in an off-grid set-up are stuck using this non green technology, if we have access to the energy grid we can avoid this messy problem and appreciate more reliable service with a grid-tied set-up.

Not to mention – batteries are expensive!  The battery bank significantly adds to the cost of an off-grid solar system. In terms of cost per installed watt, off-grid usually ranges 3-4x the cost of grid-tied solar.

Fossil Fuels are Bad, Not the Grid Itself

While it may seem romantic to be “off grid” and not beholden to the utility companies, the reality is that most homes are connected to the grid already, and the efficiencies of the grid generally outweigh the independence of an off grid system.

The grid itself is not inherently bad – what is bad are the forms of electricity that powers most of the grid.

The way to make real, tangible improvement in the way we consume energy is not to distance ourselves from the grid, but to ensure that the power we consume is generated by clean, renewable solar electricity at home and at our place of work.

Contact us if you’re interested in solar for your Maine or New Hampshire home or business.