In the city, off the grid

Issue 30 Words: Emily Braham Photography: Lindsay Edwards

Spiralling energy prices, concern for climate change and general dissatisfaction with energy retailers have led to growing interest in going off the electricity grid. Energy independence, a net-zero household and no bill surprises are certainly enticing, but how realistic is it for most of us?

In rural areas where the cost of connecting to the grid can reach as high as $100,000, supply is unreliable and solar feed-in-tariffs offer little relief, unplugging from the network is for some a no-brainer. But in our cities and regional towns it has, until now, been a different story.

It can be a challenge to install enough rooftop solar PV capacity to fully supply the average household. Damien Moyse, policy and research manager with the Alternative Technology Association (publisher of Sanctuary), says the average house could need between 6 and 10 kW of panels to allow for the not so sunny days. The biggest barrier to year-round sun-powered energy remains the issue of storage. The frustrating mismatch between the sunniest part of the day/year and peak energy demand hours has meant disconnecting from the grid is not an option for most people.

Battery storage of solar energy is a way around this problem, but high technology costs have prevented all but the most adventurous of early adopters from installing battery banks in urban homes.

“We need the cost to come down probably by around 50 per cent for there to be a critical mass for large numbers of people to go off-grid,” Damien says. A 2014 Alternative Technology Association (ATA) report, What Happens When We Unplug? suggests this could happen by 2020, at which point the transition could be “quick and dramatic”.

Interest in off-grid technology is growing. While most of it has not yet translated into action, some are venturing boldly into the unknown. Guy Stewart, the director of Australian solar company Rainbow Power, says public enquiries about battery storage and off-grid set-ups have become their most common.

“Stand-alone power systems were previously a rural client base, but now people are getting a taste of grid-connected solar and they want to know what steps they can take to make use of all the power they are producing or to get off the grid completely,” he says. For many, the next step would be ‘single-day autonomy’, where modest battery storage would allow users to shift solar energy consumption to peak usage times at the start and end of the day, but remain connected to the grid. While few are actually taking it to the next level, Guy says it is only a matter of time. “It’s clear that it is going to happen and people are organising themselves so they are ready.”

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Cover of Issue 30
You can read more about In the city, off the grid in Issue 30 of Sanctuary magazine.

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