Connecting to the power grid was one of the worst decisions we’ve made on our homestead. This is the story of how we connected to the grid only to voluntarily choose to live with it off, and still operate our homestead independently. After nearly 5 years living completely off the grid, here’s how we came to find ourselves living off the grid, even with a grid connection.
How It All Started
When we moved to our off-grid homestead, the solar system was in place, but the home had been vacant for 2 years. The batteries were dead, and we couldn’t find anyone familiar with that old, obscure type of battery. We had to guess how much storage we’d need, and we vastly underestimated the battery capacity required to live a self-sufficient lifestyle year round. Here are our specs for both production and storage if you’re curious.
For 9 months of the year, our panels produce an absurd surplus, and the batteries are full before noon. We’ve invested in a number of “summer appliances” to try to make use of the surplus, and during the summer months, we’re living a life of off-grid luxury. The remainder of the production goes to waste. Then for the 3 coldest months of winter, we’re short power and need to run the generator 10 to 15 times a month to keep power. Both problems, the summer waste and the winter shortage are due to a lack of battery storage.
The summer waste is unfortunate, especially when averaged over a whole year our panels produce way more electricity than we could possibly use. At the same time, the winter shortage was more of an issue, and running a generator is expensive, noisy and burns a lot of fossil fuel.
Weighing Our Options
After nearly 5 years off the grid, we were at an impasse. We were tired of living in boom and bust cycles with power, and we needed a solution. We had two options, both of which would cost about the same amount of money:
- Invest in more battery storage, and also add a sun tracking ground-based solar array that could be cleared of snow during the winter months (as opposed to our roof panels that would occasionally get iced in).
- Connect to the grid and use the grid as a giant battery bank. Ideally, net metering our summer surplus and drawing it back during the winter months. Total production exceeds our annual usage, so we’d never have to pay an electric bill.
Why We Connected To The Grid
Call me an idealist, but it just seemed so wasteful to produce so much extra electricity in the summer months and let it all go to waste. We even with more battery storage, there would still be a lot of summer surplus and donating that all back to the grid just seemed like the right thing to do.
We had this vision that we could use net metering and the power grid to bank our summer excess production and use it in the winter months. We’d still have a surplus, as our summer surplus far exceeds our winter needs. It seemed like a win-win, where we’d be donating our surplus to the power company, and they’d be providing in effect a large battery bank for our winter needs.
We could have invested in more batteries and invested more heavily in our own self-sufficiency, and in hindsight that would have been the right decision. If I could do it all again, I would never consider connecting to the grid.
How it All Went Wrong
The initial setup went well. Power lines were put up most the way up our long driveway, and we dug a trench to bury the final ~200 feet approaching the house for aesthetics. Everything went seamlessly, and in no time flat we were “on the grid.” We flipped on the switch test it, and power ran in through the inverter from the grid as if the generator was running. Perfect.
The net metering meter was on back order and wouldn’t arrive for a few weeks, so we’d be feeding power back into the grid without credit for a while, but that was pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things.
When the meter finally arrived, they sent out a tech to install it. That’s when the problem began…
He took one look at the system and had a meltdown. “You have batteries?!?!” he said.
Of course, we have batteries, we were off the grid for nearly 5 years, how do you think this works? He didn’t say another word, other than he couldn’t install the meter and we’d hear from them.
Batteries and the Grid
After a lot of frustrated communication with the upper-level administrators at the power company, it became clear that they just weren’t comfortable with the fact that our house was self-powered. There’s a small possibility that if a power line went down somewhere down the road, that our batteries could back feed into that line while they were trying to work on it.
While that’s obviously a problem, and I don’t want to see any linemen injured, we’re not the only ones with batteries connected to the grid. Our off-grid contractor gave them several examples of solutions used by others working with other power companies, but they weren’t satisfied.
After we’d paid an absurd amount of money to connect to the grid, they demanded that we either get rid of our batteries altogether or spend $20,000 on installing specialized cutoff switches. That included a lockout on our generator, that prevented it from being used when the power was out. Essentially, causing power to be out at our house anytime it goes out for anyone down the road.
Taking out our batteries isn’t an option, because most of our house is wired in direct current to run directly off the batteries. All of our appliances run on battery power, and can’t run without them. The other option, spending $20k to lock out our own house, was completely unacceptable.
Held Hostage By The Electric Company
At this point, we’d already spent thousands of dollars connecting to the grid, and we couldn’t go back and just upgrade our batteries. We didn’t have grid power or more battery capacity, and our bank account was empty.
The power company didn’t really seem to understand why we were upset. It’s just another bump in the road, and an unexpected cost, but an inevitable one.
At one point, a power company administrator said to me, “You obviously intended to connect to the grid when you bought this place…” I cut him off, and said, “Of course not, we never intended to connect to the grid.” He quite simply couldn’t believe it. Who would voluntarily choose not to be connected to the grid?
It was that same sense of inevitability that governed all our conversations. They assumed we had no choice, and didn’t understand our frustration.
The electric company assumes that they’re the only option and that no one can exist without them. We’d been just fine for 5 years, and we could have chosen to remain off the grid and just upgrade our system. It was a coin toss, and we made the wrong choice. That’s not the way they see it.
How We Found Another Way
We’d given up. We were ready to tell the power company to stuff it, and tear down the poles. We were out a lot of money, but there was no way we were going to pay $20k to lock ourselves out of our own power system.
A resourceful friend came up with another solution. There’s a type of power inverter that is known as a “non-grid interactive” inverter. It can only send power in one direction, and it has no option for sending power back over the grid lines. We couldn’t net meter, but there’d also wouldn’t be the potential risk of back feeding over the power lines.
The grid connection would just be hooked into the inverter as a second generator option, and we could turn on the grid to charge the batteries just like turning on a generator.
Living Off Grid with a Grid Connection
In the end, it all seems like such a waste. Our surplus electricity in the summer months still goes to waste. Not one watt of our solar production can be used by another household, even though we’re tied into the grid.
Instead of investing in technology to make our household greener and more independent at the same time, we wasted time and money on a grid connection that now sits unused for the most part. While it’s true, we didn’t run our generator at all last winter, that’s only a small consolation. The grid kicks on instead of the generator, but that electricity was produced somewhere and it’s not much cleaner than a propane generator.
For most of the year we live off-grid, but thanks to high “line fees” we still have a power bill each month even when we don’t use power. Vermont has some of the highest electricity rates in the country, so running the grid actually costs about as much as propane for our off-grid generator in the winter months.
In the end, we’re no better off than we were before. We’re out the cost of connecting to the grid, and now we spend more each year on electricity than we ever did on our generator.
That’s our story. That’s how we connected to the grid, regret it, and still live off the grid even with a grid connection.