This is the experience of one woman living off the grid, using only solar and wind power.  Living off the grid sound good to many people, but few have any idea what is actually involved.  I have read many ads from manufacturers extolling the virtues of living off grid and how simple it is.  Yet every person I have know who tried it had many complications and much expense.  Using 19th century technology does not work well with a "modern" lifestyle.  Wind and solar do not equal fossil fuels, even on an individual level.

 

Dear Sheri,

I have been reading your articles on wind turbines and found them interesting so I thought I would share with you my experiences of living off grid using only residential wind turbines and solar panels.  Let me state at the beginning it is not as easy living with green energy as it is made out to be if you do not have the ability to own and operate a large backup generator which can be expensive on its own.

I began using solar and wind in 1997 in rural northeast Arizona.   I started out with four 4 solar panels and one standard wind turbine.  Living green is expensive so you begin small and build your system as you go.  When I set up the first system I was living at 8010 feet in a pine forest.  That meant the wind turbine had to be above the trees to work so needed a 30 foot pole.  That was a real adventure getting it set up.  The wiring had to be run through the pole and the turbine secured before putting up the pole.  The turbines are heavy so even the 2 steel pole at that length wanted to bow.  All stabilizer wires (4 in all) had to be in place.  It required 6 people and a truck to get the pole up and wires tied down and the correct tension on them for the pole to be secure and straight.  It was recommended at the time to use 2 volt batteries for storage for efficiency.  These are very large and very heavy and must be wired to be a 12 volt system.  There are 2 kinds of turbines in the regular size like I use.  One is land, one is marine.  The marine is what I used as it could withstand harsh weather somewhat better.  The first thing I learned is wind power is only good if there is constant wind over 7 mph.  That is where solar panels come in.  The solar became the main power source and the wind was really only good as a backup source to keep the batteries at a stable level.  Let me mention here if you have days with no wind along with several overcast days you also have NO power.  Another pitfall is a 30 foot pole with a large metal turbine on it is a target for lightening.  Even well grounded systems can be damaged by a lightning strike.  The controller will be burned out.  As for solar panels in a forested area they had to be on top of the mobile home to work which required climbing on the roof to remove the snow in the winter often several times a day.  Since I have limited income I had to learn how to wire and maintain my system myself.  Batteries must be cleaned of corrosion build up and filled and put off fumes that can be toxic and flammable.  Also, the acid will eat your gloves, clothes and skin.  They will freeze in winter and can explode in summer.  They overheat so you have to have proper ventilation and insulation which can be a challenge.  Professional setup is ideal but also can be very costly.

In 2000, I moved to Wyoming outback country and living off grid became a real adventure.  I had been building my system so now had 3 turbines and 12 solar panels.  Wyoming wind is hell on residential standard turbines.  The older models I had did not have the shutoff safety system the newer ones have so I started out with 20 foot poles and quickly had 2 turbines burn out because of excessive winds.  I had to replace those 2 turbines with newer ones that shut down at 50 mph to prevent burn out and lower the poles to 12 foot for Wyoming.  The 3rd older one also burned out leaving me with 2 turbines.  The large 2 volt batteries froze and burst the first winter before I even got the system online so switched to the smaller 6 volt marine batteries which were less cumbersome but required more batteries.  Let me note here that when the wind exceeds 50 mph at lot of days your turbines are off more than on.  To set up the solar panel array you have to track the sun so they are positioned for the most light during the day.  My solar in Wyoming is on a ground frame so clearing snow does not require a ladder and crawling on a roof but since Wyoming is prone to snow often 10 months out of the year, it does require a lot of cleaning.  I have lost quite a few batteries to freezing since the winters in Wyoming are very harsh and extremely cold.  One battery can cost $85 on the low end to over $100 on the high side.  You have to use deep cycle 6 volt batteries for a 12 volt set up and they can be hard to find.  Acid base work the best and require a lot of maintenance.  I have had batteries explode as well as freeze.  Still at best the solar is the main source of power and turbines are really only good for backup power to maintain battery levels. I have lost 2 controllers to lightening in Wyoming.  I am constantly trying to improve my system.  I have a small gas generator as backup which can be used to charge the battery bank or to run a few things on its own.  The life of the batteries with good maintenance can be 7-10 years for new ones or about 5 years for refurbished ones.  I currently have 14 batteries as lost 6 to freezing last winter.  The power inverters are also prone to burn out.  They convert the DC to AC power.  Even with that conversion solar/wind power has to be judged on amperage opposed to watts for efficiency.  You have to monitor use to prevent black outs.  Again if wind decides not to blow or sun decides not to shine you will be without power.  Yes, I am an advocate of green living but I am also aware of the down side of living off grid on green power.

As for littering all pristine wilderness with towering wind turbines in the name of progress, I am not for that.  When I moved to my current location I enjoyed the view of the mountains and sky and sunsets and the beauty of the wild land.  It is wild and challenging and not for city folk who are used to convenience.  Now when I look out across the prairie the views are marred by towering turbines and the open night skies are splattered with flashing red turbine lights.  The shelf life of a giant turbine might be 5 to 10 years before they are abandoned to become litter on the landscape.  Wyoming has become one of the overkill regions for giant turbines.  A virtual red light district in the name of progress displacing both the wildlife and often wilderness areas with eye sores that do not even provide power in Wyoming.

As for living off the grid, you have to be willing to give up some or even a lot conveniences.  It is not an easy life to live in the outback.  It requires sacrifice and stamina.  It can be deadly for the unprepared.  It is not for the person who requires everything convenient.  It may sound romantic but if you really live the pioneer type life in the true nature of preserving the planet it is hard and a lot of work.  I have no indoor plumbing, no running water and I use wood for heat.  I am often snowed in for weeks or months.  I have no TV and limited radio stations.  I have a cell phone that works most of the time now.  I have a satellite dish for a computer that does not work a lot of the time.  I live in harmony with nature.  I do not strive to conquer it or displace it.  Sadly, I cannot say the same for some of my neighbors.

 

Dr. Thea A Sokononcaillou