Is it Time to Take Power Back from the Energy Companies?

In recent years more, people than ever are considering moving ‘off grid’. Grids are centralised systems that distribute energy in the form of electricity and gas to where it is needed. Supply and demand are carefully matched with the grids often buying excess renewable energy from consumers to keep the grid fully fed during energy lulls.

Disconnecting from this grid means leaving the safety net that it provides. In the past this would have meant seriously limiting energy use when the sun wasn’t shining, or the wind wasn’t blowing. Now however with the advances made in storage technology it is possible to store excess renewable energy for these times instead of selling the extra energy back to the grid. However, the question of whether we can produce enough energy remains. In the UK where an average family uses around 125 kilowatt hours per day, keeping your home heated consumes a lot of energy.

The answer to being able to produce enough energy to live off-grid is to use a range of solutions. The simplest option for keeping warm is to burn biomass (wood and other organic material). Natural heat can be extracted from our surroundings using solar thermal collectors and ground source heat pumps to heat water systems. Though expensive to buy they are efficient and so a good long-term investment, paying for themselves in a matter of a few years.

Being able to satisfy all the electricity demands of modern lifestyles presents more of a problem. The most popular choice is currently to use solar energy systems. Your power supply can be supplemented with a leisure battery. It’s best to invest in a deep cycle battery that can handle being run down and charged up again more frequently than a car battery.

Using wind power makes less sense for the individual household.  A roof mounted turbine provides less than a quarter of the roughly 45,000 kilowatt hours that households in the UK use in a year. Purchasing a full-size 6kW turbine if you have got enough space will cost at least £20,000 and might take the whole lifespan of the turbine to cover the costs.

Hydro power is another alternative. Living near a stream or river may give you the option of producing micro-hydro electricity. Using the water’s current and a nifty bit of kit electricity can be generated all the time.

The question for most of us is whether going ‘off grid’ completely is affordable. The best solution if the costs of going ‘off grid’ are prohibitive is a partial move away from being totally dependent on the grid. Using solar PV technology makes the most sense and supplementing this with energy from burning wood.

One way of being less grid dependent is to use less energy and there are several good habits to get into to make ‘off grid’ living more viable.

  1. Switch to LED lights – they are 90% more efficient than incandescent bulbs. Turn lights off when not being used. Lighting accounts for around 15% of household electricity.
  2. Use cold water to wash your clothes as most washing powders are now designed to work at low temperatures. Dry clothes naturally whenever you can which also reduces the need for energy intensive ironing.
  3. Turn down the heat. One of the most intensive uses of energy in homes is heating water. Turning down the heating by a degree can reduce your heating bill by 10%.
  4. Insulate your home. Fit loft insulation to prevent up to a quarter of the heat in your home escaping and deal with draughts.
  5. Insulate yourself. Today we are likely to heat our homes more than four degrees warmer than we did 50 years ago. Put on another layer of clothing instead.

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