Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Great Power Debate

As I've tried to make very clear in previous posts, the process of getting power to MFW has been a long, circuitous, bureaucratic nightmare. I've also explained the reasoning for our decision to go with a grid-tied solar system as opposed to being off-grid. Now, however, at the cusp of writing a very large check ($8,000) to Puget Sound Energy and running heavy, expensive equipment through some freshly filed easements with our neighbors, Christy and I are taking a moment to reevaluate our options and make sure we're making the right decision. Follow me, won't you, on a closer examination of the to-grid-or-not-to-grid dilemma....

To Grid

A grid-tied solar system would feed excess energy back into the grid when not being used. The electric company must then buy this excess power from us, crediting our account. When we are using more power than we are generating, we cash in our credit to buy energy back from the grid. In an ideal situation, this ends up as an even swap and we owe the power company nothing at the end of the year. We use the grid, essentially, as a battery, storing our own energy for later use. These systems are commonly installed and involve less equipment than off-grid systems. The real selling point that's had us is the fact that there are no batteries involved, which are expensive and hazardous to the environment when disposed of. It also guarantees that we will never be out of power, we just might have to pay for it.

Not To Grid

There is a certain feeling of freedom and rebellion the comes with an off-grid system. We would be relying on no one but ourselves to power our homestead, no money would ever trade hands and we would be the only house glowing from inside in the event of an outage (if only we could harness the power of our own smugness....) Keep in mind, though, that we are not living in the Sunshine State, the Golden State, the Land of the Midnight Sun or even the Sunflower State. Washington is the Evergreen State if you're looking forward and quickly becomes the Evergrey State once you look up. With our northern latitude, maritime climate and sandwiching mountain ranges, we can usually count on long stretches of constant cloud cover, locally referred to as "winters". We would need to store as much energy as possible in a bank of batteries to get us through what Christy likes to call "the reading season". A very crude estimate based off my various research and chatting: I'm guessing we could power our homestead (workshop included) with an off-grid system for around $30,000. I could be way off; we're going to meet with some local experts soon who will be telling us a bit more in depth about our options. It would be more involved and require more maintenance, but we could save the $10,000 it will apparently cost to run power lines to the land.

The Debate

If an off-grid system (assuming it's possible up here), is only $10,000 more than a grid-tied system, then we should settle on that now, before handing $8,000 over to the energy company and spending another $2000 to install their infrastructure. That would mean, however, sacrificing a significant amount of power security. We would be all on our own if we run our batteries out, and no one wants to run a loud, smelly generator (on fossil fuels, none the less)! The security of constant power? The freedom of independence? I really hope there's a large financial difference between these two options, it will make this decision a lot easier!

What do you think we should do?

In other news, Fall abruptly ended yesterday. It had a great run, though. In a brazen attempt to teach myself framing (as opposed to reading one of the many books available), I started my first roofing job: building rafters for the greenhouse. Or rather, making up what I think rafters are probably like... Christy had to bail me out, but it's looking nice now and I was pretty close! And on the septic/septicless front, our good friends Berry and Stacey have been feeding us really great information on the plants necessary to make our crazy dream happen.

Stay tuned!

Oh hey, those pickled green tomatoes I told you we were making a ways back: Freaking Rock.


  1. My husband and I go 'round and 'round about to tie or not to tie- he would tie, and I would not, but since it's unlikely that we'll live long enough for a system to pay itself back to us, we probably won't do it. Not at today's prices.

    Here are some questions to ask yourself: How likely are you to have power outages way out where you are? Enough to be really annoying? Can those batteries be recycled instead of disposed of? How likely would you guys be to shift how you live to work with limited electricity generated by your own system, or would you even care? And here's the kicker: after forking over eight grand to the power company, how likely are they to get enough work done in time for you to be able to take advantage of the tax rebate which is expiring at the end of this year, a mere oh- six or seven weeks away? Or does that figure into your equation?

    Steve cites the same argument for tying in that you did- his greatest beef is the difficulty in getting rid of the batteries. I also don't think he particularly wants to mess with the maintenance involved either. That all said, my understanding is that you will still get some electricity generated on cloudy days, just not as much as on sunny days. How much depends on how efficient your panels are.

    That said, my last argument for going off grid is that you will probably have to buy back power at a higher price than when you sold it. The price of power is always going up, so if you sell it at one price during the summer and the price goes up when you have to buy it back, you will probably get the same price for it next summer that you bought it last winter. But then it goes up again. It would all come down to timing. The only way to lock in your price of power would be to go off grid. Until it's time to replace the batteries, that is.

    I don't envy you the decision- it's a stinker. Unlike your greenhouse, which is going to be really, really nice.

  2. Being on grid doesn't restrict you from adding your own panels later. I'd take the rebated on-grid option. -Aimee