We live in interesting times, and they could get a whole lot more interesting. I’ve heard some say they will get dire, but I prefer to think of it as difficult or challenging. We don’t want to bury our heads in the sand and pretend everything has gone back to normal, but we don’t need to panic either. Planning for all eventualities, however, seems like a good idea.
So I got together with a group of local friends last week, and we brainstormed about what we could do to reduce power costs in the face of harder economic times (best case scenario) or to get through winter if we have short power outages or (worst case scenario) longer power outages.
All our ideas will take more than one post. We wanted to look at:
- Whole house power
- Heating and cooling
- Food preservation and preparation
- Lighting, communications and devices
- Washing and hygiene
Let’s start with some ways we can run our homes if we have to go off grid for whatever reason.
This is the first option that springs to mind when thinking about how we can personally generate power. In later posts, we’ll look at how we can use solar power for specific purposes, but this post is about whole house power.
Historically, solar panels have been expensive. If you look around, you’ll likely see that not many of your neighbours have gone for this option. Those that have might have 2 or 3 panels. They’ll be hooked up to the power grid, so what they produce is supplemented from the grid, and at any times when they are producing more than is needed, that will go back into the network. Depending on the power company, that may or may not be taken off the monthly bill.
I’m not entirely convinced that they’re a green option either. It might seem like free energy is better for the environment, but a lot of resources go into the batteries. Your neighbours probably don’t have batteries either, as they weren’t available when the early adopters got solar. But for the worst case scenarios we’re preparing for, just in case, it will be critical to have batteries to store the excess power from daytime, to use at night.
So if your priority is to reduce your power costs, you probably won’t be able to go this way, as it could take years to recover the initial costs. If you are in a local community support group, though, and one or more members have suitable roofs, it could be worth having a discussion about whether you could crowd fund 1 or 2 systems between you.
Note that if there is an outage, your power company will disable your connection, for the safety of their workers. So you might need to know how to manually disconnect from the grid in that situation, and be able to use your own power safely.
In our household, we have stock for our business, as well as our own food, that sometimes needs to be kept cool. So we have a number of fridges and freezers. In the case of a prolonged power outage, it would be vital to keep those going, even if we ran nothing else. So we decided that we’d go for a solar system, and we’d go big.
The first thing we learnt was what components we’d need:
- Inverter – if we understand correctly, this is to harness the power and divert it to current usage / or battery / or back to grid
After a discussion with a rep, we ordered a system in September last year and sat back to wait for it to be installed at the end of October.
Unfortunately, due to the state of the world at the moment, the components took a long time to arrive, and in fact, some of them still haven’t. But to our great relief, some strong men came over about a month ago and hauled about 8 solar panels and a weighty battery up our path.
Their next job was to install the rails that the panels will sit on.
Then the exciting bit, some panels were attached.
Until the inverter and a the last few panels arrive, we won’t have a working system, but we’re on the way!
So our best advice when choosing a supplier is to ask – do they have the components in the country? and how long before the installers are available to install it? After that you can have the conversation about how many panels you need for your most urgent needs, what size battery you require, and what is that going to cost? You also need to take into consideration how many hours of sunlight your roof will get. The newer panels still charge up as long as there is daylight, but the more sun, the better.
Some useful websites to check out:
- EECA Energywise Solar Tool – to assess the suitability of your home
- Sustainable Energy Association New Zealand solar optimiser
- Price My Solar – compares prices from various suppliers
Wellington has no shortage of wind, so this seemed like an interesting option to investigate further. If we’d known last year that it was possible to get turbines for individual houses, maybe we’d have gone another way.
Wellington does have a wind farm, but we know that the jury is out on whether they are cost effective in the long term. The problem with them is that the strain they are subjected to means they deteriorate very quickly. Maybe even before they’ve paid for themselves. So that’s a question that needs to be answered about the smaller turbines we’re looking at here.
It turns out that nobody in our group knows anything about them, so we do need to do some more research. The questions we want to ask are:
- what components are needed?
- can they also be hooked up to a battery?
- in Wellington, how many hours a day are they likely to produce power, on average, and how much?
- how do they price up against solar power?
- if you wanted to get solar and wind power, can they complement each other and work together?
One supplier is https://www.tesup.nz/wind-turbines. They have a variety of different styles of turbine. Hopefully they can answer all these questions, plus another vital one – do you have stock, and when could you install?
We also want to find out if there are other suppliers with similar units.
Hopefully we will have more info to share here soon, but in the meantime, if anyone has chance to ring them and ask – please let me know!
For those who want to go fully offgrid permanently, it’s recommended that you have a generator as backup. They are a comparatively inexpensve purchase to start with, but there is an ongoing need for fuel to run them.
Some of the considerations with a generator would be:
- Petrol vs diesel
- Petrol lasts one year and diesel lasts several years.
- Have a plan to use your fuel before it goes off, and replace it
- Where can you safely store your fuel?
- What if fuel gets too expensive or is no longer available?
- It would need to be kept and used outside due to fire danger and CO2 emissions
Again, if you are are in a community group, it might be a good backup to own one between the group.
If going for this option, maybe just use it for vital things like keeping fridges and freezers going, to preserve fuel stores.
Portable Power Stations
These are like giant power banks that can be used to run a lot more than just your phone.
In NZ, one supplier is Goal Zero. Their units can be solar powered, or charged from the mains. They range in price from $2600 to $6500. Again, they might be a good option for a few households to club together to buy.
We still need to find out if there are other suppliers in NZ.
Whichever option is chosen, some type of battery storage could be needed. The portable power stations look like a good option, but are there others?
We had some conversation about Phone chargers with water and salt, so another question that we need to research is – is there a way to use salt and water for electricity on a large scale?
It’s known that back in the day, Tesla had some other ways of generating power, that have since been suppressed. Looking into those might be a long term project of interest.
It is advisable to document where your fuses are and what each fuse is for. If you are operating on limited power, it could be useful to take out the fuses for areas where you don’t want power going to, so only the vital areas are getting it.
It may pay to have a CO2 detector, as some alternative heating or cooking methods may produce it. This is because CO2 is odourless, and we don’t want to be breathing it in unnecessarily and without realising it. If the detector goes off – open a window!
Whatever solutions you decide to go for, make sure you consult an electrician who can make sure you’re set up in a safe way.
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