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Want to break free? - How going off grid could save more than the planet

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Fed up with increasing electricity bills from utility companies who seem to think they can charge what they like for energy? You’re not alone. With the average electricity bill growing by a whopping 37% over the last few years according to research by the Citizens Advice Bureau reported by The Guardian – and set to rise at up to eight times the rate of earnings – electricity bills seem to be getting more and more shocking by the month.

But what can a householder do? With everything from lighting to phones and kitchen appliances reliant on electricity, this energy is part and parcel of modern day living. But we needn’t go back to medieval lifestyles and stop using it altogether to beat the utility companies (though the companies themselves appear to doing a convincing impression of the evil barons from that era).

The answer is simple. Look to the heavens for inspiration. No, not that far. To the sun, and more specifically the huge amounts of untapped energy it provides. A solution that more and more people are taking and one that means, if you get it right, you can break free from the energy companies altogether and live a life off grid.

That’s what a growing worldwide movement of people are discovering as they unplug from electricity network and tap into a limitless source of power from the sun’s rays.

This burgeoning movement has been gathering momentum since alternative energy sources first began to be discussed and developed by communities more driven by ideological belief than financial streamlining. Today, with the price of renewable energy equipment such as solar panels within easy reach of the domestic user, it’s an option that’s not just attractive to the environmentally friendly but also the budget conscious.

Simply put, an off grid solution provides complete autonomy and independence from the national grid, storing energy in batteries for use at night and other times when the solar panels are not generating as much electricity as you require. They are often supplemented by a small domestic wind turbine and generator when the panels or batteries are not providing enough power to meet the home’s energy demands.

In fact, according to a recent Guardian article on off-grid living, there has been a sharp rise in the number of people living off the grid. Over the last few years in America, for example the number is estimated to have risen from under a million five years ago to over two million today.

So, how does it work in practice? The answer can be found with some of the many off gridders sharing their experiences online.

In an article at Motherearthnews.com, Ed Essex gave this rundown of the system powering his smallholding in Washington State, USA:

“The system capacities are as follows: Panels - 1720 Watts; Inverter – 4000 watts; Battery Storage – 1160 Amp Hours or 22 Kwh Storage which means about 3 days for us because we don’t like our batteries to go below 60% capacity (I actually don’t usually let them go below a 30 percent discharge or 70 percent capacity).

Inside the house we have a Trimetric Reader that allows us to see what our electrical usage is at all times and what state our battery capacity is at. It also helps to track how long it has been since our batteries were charged to 100% and how long it has been since we equalized our batteries, which for me has to occur once a month.

Our system will run our house, barn and 220V water pump for two people easily. When the sun shines it produces more power than we need. We use our backup generator about 100 hours per year.”

In this country, many other people are making the switch, too. Campaigner, activist, author and off grid dynamo Nick Rosen has been pioneering off grid living for many years. He’s not just written books on the subject, but also edits the popular a website off-grid.net and has become the go-to guru for the movement in the UK.

In a recent Guardian article, he said: “It's official. Off-grid energy is moving from the eco-fringe to mainstream. Last month US investment bank Morgan Stanley announced that the off-grid era had arrived: falling prices for renewable energy equipment and rising prices for energy supplied by power companies are fundamentally altering the business model of the trillion-dollar electricity industry.” He also pointed out the unsustainability of the existing infrastructure, saying: “The power grid is like a giant battery and up to £500 per year of our energy bills is paying for the maintenance of that battery.”

So, whether you’re an eco-warrior or canny consumer, maybe now is the time to consider going off grid and unplugging from the network whilst tapping into a greener and cheaper way to power your home.

A simple off grid solar system
A modern solar system is sophisticated enough to run by itself and the only thing you really have to worry about is battery maintenance if you have a battery storage system as part of your package.

Typically, a residential-size solar system installation will include:

Solar panels
Generating electrical power from the sun and mounted in an array either on the roof or in a ground location

Power centre
The power centre manages the flow of power and converts the solar electricity for use in your building or storage in the batteries.

Batteries
Storing energy for use at night, or for times that the solar panels are not generating as much electricity as you require.

Backup power source
Such as a generator or wind turbine to provide power in case your batteries run down.

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