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Power to the People: How to Source Energy Off-Grid
It sounds almost unbelievable, but sourcing energy independently of the grid is one of the easiest aspects of the off-grid lifestyle.
Of course, that’s not to say that it is easy (actually if anything it only emphasises how difficult every other aspect is).
But where many aspects of the off-grid lifestyle — such as sourcing sustainable clean water and food sustenance — are almost impossible to do without lapsing back onto the structures of society, energy self-sufficiency in itself is not wholly unrealistic.
What “Off-Grid” Really Means
But in order to explore the issue more clearly, first it needs to be determined just what actually constitutes off-grid living.
There are lots of different interpretations — and some are more lenient than others.
Common definitions, each more extreme than the last, include:
- Living independently of the public power grid. At its most basic interpretation, this is literally where the expression off grid comes from.
- Living independently of all public utilities, even the water supply.
- Avoiding public infrastructure altogether, including roads.
- Living independently of healthcare systems, shops and services.
Living independently of the power grid is relatively easy. But anything more extreme than that is not.
For example, a well-maintained solar panel might allow a person to source much of their energy from the sun for a decade or longer.
But the initial purchase must take place in some sort of “on grid” shop, and repairs might require services.
That being said, while we are on the subject, it is time to focus on the holy grail of energy self-sufficiency.
That of our ability to harvest infinite, clean energy from our nearest star.
Solar Power — Harvesting the Sun
Over the past ten years, solar technology has undergone a tremendous revolution.
It is now cheaper and more efficient than ever, and should be the first thing anyone has in mind when it comes to energy self-sufficiency.
They are also very resilient. Look after your solar panel, and it is likely only to need simple repairs even after a decade of heavy use.
Solar panels still work — though not as well — when the sky is drab and overcast, but you will have to “chase” the sun to get maximum effect.
For that reason, and for the simple fact that if you live in a northern climate it tends to be cloudy more often than not, the free-standing models are the best.
With free-standing models, you can pivot and orientate them toward the sun as it moves across the sky.
Briefcase solar panels, which open up like a flower, are also very useful.
And both can be folded and stored away easily to prevent theft or damage during storms.
For two people, a single 100-watt panel should provide enough energy to meet very basic needs, one that is wired into two 110-amp leisure panels.
Finding somewhere to construct a waterwheel sounds almost like a no-brainer.
But waterweels are antiquated in that so much energy is wasted in the rotation process alone.
The power output of a waterwheel is always determined by the amount of energy available in the stream of water it is exploiting, and by the discharge and head of it.
‘Discharge’ is the flow rate, whereas the head of water is the total height that it drops between the delivery chute and the race in the case of an overshot wheel.
What restricts a waterwheel is that the maximum head is always limited by the diameter of the wheel.
And it is pretty much impossible to construct one larger than 20 metres across because it then becomes too heavy (and inefficient) as it turns.
A water turbine does not have this limitation.
It is possible to construct something in a similar guise to the Pelton turbine. That is, a turbine that consists of a ring of cups fixed around the rim of a hub.
The design almost looks like an infinite circle of spoons all glued together.
The ‘spoons’ (or cups) are designed for stream water to crash into them, forcing them down in a reverse direction to the oncoming water, turning the turbine aggressively.
A Pelton turbine is the best way to harness water energy by exploiting a large head with a small discharge flow.
For situations where the water has a low head but high discharge, the cross-flow turbine is a better option.
A cross-flow turbine should have small, curved blades on its wheel called ‘vanes’, arranged in a circle.
This ingenious design propels the wheel twice: when the water first pushes the vanes down, and again as the water exits out the wheel at the bottom.
Cross-flow turbines look more like waterwheels than Pelton turbines, but they are much more efficient. It is not the weight of the falling water that turns them, but the action of the water as it strikes the vanes.
Both Pelton turbines and cross-flow turbines are relatively easy to construct, and in most cases, can be made with rather basic metal-working tools.
The fact that they are recommended as appropriate technologies for many areas in the developing world is testament to their efficiency and ease-of-use, especially for anyone thinking of generating their own power off the grid.
Connecting Turbines to the Grid
No matter how good it is at exploiting the natural kinetic energy of a river, for any turbine to be useful, the energy it manufactures must be captured and distributed in an efficient way.
The best generator to use is one with a rapidly cycling alternating current (AC).
With an AC generator, the energy generated is easier to transport and the voltage is also adjustable if you use a transformer.
Wire the generator up to the turbine and to your home, and feel the freedom that those in the nineteenth-century never experienced: clean, silent energy straight into the home without any need for storage.
Good luck trying to salvage your own natural gas.
It requires millions of dollars’ worth of extensive equipment and operational planning in remote, far-off areas, and it is of course very dangerous.
Plus, much of the “easy” gas — that near surface level — has already been extracted.
Luckily you can purchase refillable gas cylinders at special stores or large supermarkets.
This is still acceptable if we consider off-grid living to mean a life free from hooking up to the main power grid.
Gas is an important source of energy. It keeps us warm in the winter, and all year round powers our refrigeration units.
For two people, a gas system of about two refillable cylinders should suffice to meet demand (with a third cylinder in place as a backup).
Two good-sized gas cylinders should last three weeks before refilling, based on average levels of consumption.
Although this depends on the environment. If it is very cold (sub-zero) for long periods of time, you might be expected to burn through 34 litres of propane a week.
A gas system itself doesn’t cost a lot, but the propane bills will get expensive in the long-run, so keep that in mind.
Shop around and do your research for the best, most flexible and affordable systems.
Adjusting to a Low-Consumption Lifestyle
This is not about sourcing energy per se, but about how to use it more wisely and be aware of its limitations.
For example, with a 100-watt solar panel, you might find yourself in life’s slow lane — as far as energy consumption is concerned.
That means, a life without TV, a microwave, and even a coffee-maker and toaster.
Before you shout, “that sounds like no fun!” remember that you can cook and boil water on a wooden stove.
As for watching the TV, you don’t even need one if you have a laptop or a smartphone.
A good idea would be to install 12-volt sockets in your off-grid home, to drive down the consumption of power.
Power packs (like these) are also essential.
The important thing is to charge them up using solar energy, and refer to them when the sun isn’t shining.
You should also use this time to charge up laptops, phones, tablet computers, and anything else — and just run them on their batteries at night. It is also better to replace LED bulbs for halogen ones.
A bio-ethanol stove is also very useful. They can work as a makeshift cooker, and even a heater should you need it.
It is a simple investment, but one that could pay dividends.