8/2016: I just interviewed Marcin Jakubowski about his $25,000 off grid home, and all the alternative energy systems he has incorporated into it.
Whether you are looking to be completely off grid, or just want to have some backup power, there is a wide array of alternative energy sources to choose from. But which ones make the most sense for you?
While there are some really compelling use cases for almost every form of alternative energy, there is also a fair amount of hype and misinformation.
So let’s take a look at some of the different options and figure out which is going to make the most sense for you. We’ll go in descending order, or in other words, from the largest applications to the smallest.
You’re welcome to read this guide in it’s entirety, or use these convenient links to refer to a specific topic.
Large Scale Alternative Energy Sources
Solar Panels-Solar photovoltaic systems harvest sunlight into usable electricity, to power your home. Like you would think, solar is most viable for people that live in hot, sunny areas. And if it’s a sunny DRY area (think South-western United States), it’s even more important for you to concentrate on solar, because you probably won’t be able to take advantage of technologies like micro-hydro, or wood gasification. Solar is one of the more widely proven alternative energy technologies, that’s getting cheaper all the time! If you want to get started powering your home through solar, you can learn what you need to here.
Makes sense for: Hot, sunny climates.
Wind-Wind powered energy has long been called the “greenest and cleanest” alternative energy. While many people are fascinated with the idea of powering their homes on wind technology, the reality is that in lots of situations, wind powered turbines are not a financially feasible energy source. Why? Because most people don’t have consistent enough wind (both in quantity and direction). That said, wind turbines can perform exceptionally well on hilltops or at the mouths of large canyons (Think about where you have seen commercial wind farms). Due to the fact that harnessing wind involves putting a turbine up on a large tower, wind power typically makes more sense in rural or “outskirts of town” areas, where there are looser zoning regulations and logistical roadblocks.
Makes sense for: Semi-rural located homes situated on hilltops or at the mouth of a canyon.
Wood Gasification-This technology involves super-heating wood to the point when a combustible gas is released. That gas is then used as a fuel to power generators and other engines. Because it uses wood (and other similar biomass), gasification is best suited to areas where there is an abundance of biomass that can be used for fuel. This actually makes this technology a good idea across a number of situations. Think about timberlots, the tropics, the Eastern U.S., the Pacific Northwest. In many climates, wood gasification is a good counterpart to solar energy. Think about Vermont vs. Arizona. Seattle vs. Southern California. If your area is cloudy and wet, you probably won’t be powering your house off of solar, but those conditions are also perfect for the vegetative growth that powers gasifiers.
Makes sense for: Areas with solid vegetative growth.
Micro-Hydropower-Like you would probably gather from the name, micro-hydro power involves harnessing the flow of water for small scale energy production. Right off the bat, this is only possible if you have access to flowing water. And in order for it to be feasible, it should be in close proximity to the area that you are trying to power. If you have a stream flowing on the opposite end of your 209 acre property, it’s not realistic to plan on converting that into electrical current to power your house. The biggest limiting factors with a micro hydro system are the delivery components (i.e. pipes and wires!). Delivery of energy from the turbine to the site in need of it, and in some cases, delivery of flowing water to the actual turbine.
Makes sense for: Hilly areas with consistently flowing streams.
Geothermal-Geothermal energy makes use of hot water reservoirs that exist beneath the earth’s surface. Wells are drilled down to access these reservoirs, and then the water and steam are converted into usable power. Geothermal reservoirs are scattered throughout the world. In the United States, they are primarily in the West. Although geothermal energy can be converted to electricity and support a number of applications, the most widely used applications of this power are to use it to directly heat or cool your home. This is done by installing a “heat pump”, located in the basement of a structure and then engineered to interface with ducting and temperature controls.
Makes sense for: Areas with geothermal reservoirs.
Mid-Powered Alternative Energy Sources
Battery Backup Power Supply (with A/C conversion)-Backup batteries are great for storing a small amount of energy for power outage situations. In a sense, a backup battery is another kind of “inverter”, taking stored energy and turning it into alternating current. These are perfect for powering computers, charging phones, and especially medical devices (Because my kids have a serious blood sugar condition, my wife and I have one of these to power the pump that continuously feeds our daughter overnight).
Car Inverter-Many people would like to get a gas or diesel powered generator, but simply can’t afford it right now. The car inverter is the solution! In an emergency situation (particularly the short term emergencies that last a week or less), you can use a car inverter to power your home’s lights, TV, and other electrical devices, simply from the gas that is in your car’s tank. Plain and simple, a car inverter is your most simple, cost-effective solution to a short term electrical grid failure.
Generator-For people that regularly go without power for extended periods of time, a gas generator is a great way to ensure that your most critical appliances and devices get the electricity they need. In hurricane areas, these are HIGH on the list for anybody trying to be prepared. Although they are not cheap, they can power fridges, freezers, heating and air conditioning, and just about anything. With heating and cooling devices in particular, make sure that your generator is appropriately sized. Electric heat and cooling usually requires a significant load.
Makes sense for: People trying to power critical household devices and appliances during short-term emergencies, or in areas with an unreliable power grid and intermittent outtages.
Small Scale Alternative Energy Sources
Extra Batteries-Most people don’t think of batteries as an “alternative energy” source, but we include them in the conversation, because batteries provide a way to power devices, independent of the grid. They are essentially the smallest unit of stored energy. While they may not be enough to power your entire home, you shouldn’t just blaze past them on your way to solar, or some other more “exciting” form alternative energy. It may just be that in a pinch, the most important things you need are a battery powered flashlight and transistor radio. For as inexpensive as batteries can be purchased, you should stock up.
Power Pot-The Power Pot is actually a cooking cup and a generator rolled into one! Using thermoelectrics, the Power Pot converts heat into usable electric current that can charge devices like cell phones, GPS units, HAM radios, headlamps, and more! When you think in terms of an emergency situation, the ability for this little product to “stack functions” (i.e. provide heat, cook food, and charge devices) is invaluable. Highly recommended!
BioLite Stove-Similar to the Power Pot, the BioLite stove is a thermoelectric camp stove that can be used to power USB connected devices while it’s warming your hands and cooking your food. The great thing about BioLite is that it doesn’t take any fancy fuel, it can be powered with just twigs and sticks that you find on the ground around you. No need to carry special tablets or canisters with you.
Portable Solar Panels-Another great tool for harvesting energy from the earth around you is a portable solar panel. Small portable solar panels can be used to directly charge your devices via USB, or you can get the accompanying rechargeable batteries and charger to give yourself even more versatility. Either way, this is just 1 more great solution to keep in your car for powering devices when you need to!
Makes sense for: People trying to power small handheld devices in emergency situations, or during off grid travel.