The most effective off-grid energy systems are those that are best positioned to utilize the resources they’re drawing from. Regions with long exposure to sunlight are advantaged with solar panels, regions with strong winds are advantaged using turbines, and areas with rivers are best suited for micro-hydropower.
Whether it be solar, wind, hydro, gas, or manual power, the key to a successful off-grid energy system is to match the right technology, or combination of, with the environment.
The push toward renewable energy sources can be seen and felt across many mediums of our culture. And while reasons for this transition may vary between individuals and groups, from a self-sufficiency perspective, off-grid energy symbolizes independence from the grid.
While many of these energy systems do have some efficiency limitations in comparison to traditional systems, significant technological improvement has been made in recent years and continues to show promise. But large strides in improvement can make it a bit challenging to keep up with the change.
This article will cover the most reasonable types of off-grid energy for rural, off-grid, and nomadic living. We’ll cover which type of location and scenario best fits each type of system.
And while each of these systems can provide a significant amount of power given the right conditions, the best approach to self-sufficient living is to have multiple resources. Thus, the best source for off-grid energy is a working combination of these.
This article will cover the best off-grid energy solutions, including:
- Solar energy
- Wind energy
- Microhydro power
- Wood gasification
- Crank power
Solar panels are one of the most widely used sources of renewable energy and for good reason. The solar industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world and a “solar photovoltaic installer” is currently the fastest-growing job in the United States (CNBC).
While solar efficiency is consistently making improvements in the lab and in practice, it’s certainly come a long way since its inception. In 1954, solar efficiency began at a mere 6%. Today, the average solar panel can get about 22% efficiency with some higher-end panels pushing 46% (Energy Sage).
How much energy can you generate from solar panels?
The amount of usable power generated from a solar energy system will depend on a number of factors including the quality of solar panels, the number of solar panels installed, and the amount of sunlight directed towards the panels. For the sake of a simplistic explanation, we'll use data averages from the US Energy Information Administration.
The average solar panel is rated at around 250 watts. In sunny California, you can typically get 5 hours of direct sunlight per day, depending on your region and home’s location. With a 250-watt panel receiving 5 hours of sunlight per day, you're generating 1,250 watt-hours per day, or 37.5 kilowatt-hours per month (Energy Sage).
According to the US Energy Information Administration, the average household in the United States uses about 11,000 kWh per year or 900 kWh per month (EIA).
Now, one 250-watt solar panel doesn't come close to covering the 900 kWh electricity requirement for an entire home. So, according to this scenario, you'd need an array of 24 solar panels to generate 900 kilowatt-hours per month.
How much will a solar energy system cost?
An entire solar system can cost anywhere between $10,000 to $30,000 depending on how much energy output is preferred, but most are around the $16,000 range (modernize).
Individual 250-watt panels can range from $175 to $375 each.
While solar energy systems can be pricey upfront, it is always possible to start with a smaller system and add more panels later on. Many homeowners who use solar aren't relying entirely on their panels for electricity, but are supplementing with other energy sources.
Components of a solar energy system
A typical residential solar energy system consists of the following components:
Solar panels - The solar panels themselves are what absorb the energy from the sun and therefore must be placed in an area that gets the most sun exposure, typically a roof. Solar panels can also be placed in an open area where they’d be mounted onto racks into an array formation.
Inverter - Solar energy exists in the form of DC power. However, our homes use electricity in the form of AC power. An inverter is a device that converts the DC solar power into AC power where it can then be used via the wall outlets.
Battery pack - Energy accumulated by the solar panels needs to be stored for later use, thus is typically kept in battery packs. The two most common types of solar batteries are lead-acid and lithium-ion.
Lead-acid batteries are reliable, heavy, and much less expensive than lithium batteries, but require more maintenance. Lithium-ion batteries aren’t as maintenance-heavy but are more costly.
Charge controller - In between the solar panels and the battery bank is the charge controller, the device responsible for regulating the flow of electricity. The charge controller prevents the batteries from overcharging and also from being fully depleted. Without a charge controller, direct connection between the panels and the battery bank can significantly reduce the life of the batteries.
Important considerations for solar energy
While the future of solar energy is very promising and is currently helping thousands of homes with their energy needs, there are some drawbacks that are important to be aware of.
Efficiency - The thermodynamic efficiency limit states that solar energy will never reach 100% efficiency (wikipedia). What this means is that solar panels will never be able to absorb ALL of the energy emitted by the sun’s rays, only a portion of it. While solar panel efficiency is improving every year, most solar panels are currently at a 20% efficiency rating.
Given the fact that the solar panels are dependent on direct exposure to the sun, only specific climate regions are really able to utilize their full potential.
Cost - The average home in the United States has spent around $16,000 for its solar energy system. While systems are trending toward more affordable options, it still isn’t widely available to most households.
Installation and portability - Solar panels are quite large and are best serviced by professional installers. It is possible to have a system installed via DIY but all the necessary tools and research should be acquired ahead of time. Furthermore, moving residences can be a challenge if panels are already installed.
Recommended Solar Energy Providers
Here are a few of the top, most trusted solar energy providers for residential applications.
Sunpower - Sunpower is a residential and commercial solar energy design company based out of Silicon Valley in California. They've been ranked #1 in commercial solar since 2017 and have received over 1,000 patents for solar innovation. Sunpower has over 35 years of solar expertise and is used by companies such as Toyota, Ford, General Electric, and Macy's.
Go Green Solar - Go Green Solar is another widely used solar energy provider. Their installation crew consists of experienced veterans who've been in the solar game since 2006. They've worked with companies such as CBS, NBC, and USA Today. Go Green Solar is very highly reviewed by their customers and always stays true to their 100% money-back guarantee.
Sun Factory - Sun Factory offers an incredible program called The Simple Solar Program, offering approved applicants a chance to save on solar energy without having to provide all the initial costs upfront. If approved, Sun Factory will cover the initial costs of installing the system while being reimbursed through the amount of money saved in electric bills. This gives homeowners who can't afford the heavy installation prices a chance to benefit from a solar energy system.
Portable Solar Energy System
For camping trips, remote living, or even as part of an emergency plan, portable solar panels coupled with a power station can be a very useful device. The Jackery Solar Generator 1500 comes complete with four 100-watt portable solar panels and power station with a 1534 watt-hour capacity.
The entire system is more than capable of powering important appliances such as mini-coolers, microwave ovens, and electric grills.
- 1534 watt-hour capacity
- 1800W AC output
- 100W solar panels (x 4)
- 5 hour charge time via solar panels
- 24 month warranty
Wind energy has been harnessed as mechanical power by civilizations around the world for thousands of years. Today, wind energy is converted to electricity. In 2020, wind capacity reached 744 gigawatts worldwide (WWEA).
For off-grid usage, smaller wind turbines can be installed to capture wind energy and provide electricity to a home for up to 20 years.
How much energy can a wind turbine generate?
Two major factors that contribute to potential energy production are wind speed and turbine size. The larger the turbine and the faster the wind speed is, the more energy will be produced.
As used in our solar example, the EIA states that the average home uses about 900 kWh per month. Given this demand, a wind turbine rated in the power range of 5 kW to 15 kW would be needed to meet these energy requirements.
However, because wind conditions can be unpredictable, room should be given to allow energy fluctuations significantly above and below what’s expected.
How much do wind turbines cost?
Because wind turbines can generate energy significantly more efficiently than solar, they are also much more expensive. Wind turbines can cost between $3000 to $5000 per kilowatt of service (Energy Sage).
A 10 kW turbine, powerful enough to supply a large home with all its energy needs, can range between $50,000 to $80,000.
Smaller turbine systems, around 5 kW, may not be powerful enough to supply the entire home with all its energy needs but can be supplemented with other energy sources, such as solar. A 5 kW system can cost around $15,000.
Height, location, and zoning laws
As highly rated and as large as the wind turbine itself may be, it’ll only generate as much energy as the wind speed will allow it. Therefore, a region where wind speeds are high and consistent will be a prime candidate for a wind turbine.
Furthermore, wind speeds are faster at higher altitudes, thus, the wind turbine will produce more energy when elevated. Obstructions such as buildings and trees can significantly disrupt wind flow so positioning the turbine away from these objects is optimal.
The office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy provides useful maps on locating the best possible regions for wind turbines. Check it out here: windexchange.energy.gov/maps-data
Each state and county may have specific regulations on wind turbines as it pertains to communities and individual households. Be sure to check with local legislature before attempting a turbine project. This resource provides some insight on zoning and permits: windexchange.energy.gov/projects/permitting
Recommended Wind Turbine Supplier
Solar Direct is a renewable energy supply retailer based out of Sarasota, FL, and offers a wide variety of residential wind turbines. The AIR 40 is one of the world's best-selling wind turbines, widely used by many off-grid homes.
With the capability of providing 40 kWh of energy per month, the AIR 40 is an excellent turbine for a hybrid system – complementing solar panels during cloudy periods.
- Can provide 40 kWh of power per month
- 12, 24, and 48 Volts
- Rotor diameter: 46 in. / 1.17 m
- Weight: 13 lbs. / 5.9 kg
- Body: cast aluminum
- Lifetime warranty
WindLily: Portable Wind Turbine for Travel and Camping
The WindLily is a device created by the designers of the WaterLily and is capable of providing 15 watts of power in optimum wind conditions. The WindLily is lightweight, compact, and very useful for charging small devices.
For outdoor enthusiasts, nomads, and those living the remote life, the WindLily is the perfect compact turbine for keeping your phones, radios, and battery packs fully charged.
- Provides 15 watts of power
- Easy to pack and transport
- Comes in either USB or 12V output
- 7" diameter × 3" thick (180 mm × 76 mm)
- Minimum wind speed: 7 mph (10 km/h, 5 kt)
- 10 ft / 3 m power cord
Hydropower, one of the most widely used and most cost-efficient methods for generating electricity, is the harnessing of the natural flow of water and converting it into electrical power.
In fact, the country of Norway gets 98% of its national energy from hydropower (DIY Solar Shack).
Micro hydropower refers to a smaller-scale system of energy generation, typically between 5 and 100 kilowatts.
In the off-grid, rural home application, micro hydropower will involve utilizing a river or stream to generate electricity via a turbine and generator or alternator.
How much energy can you get?
One of the most significant advantages a micro hydropower system has over solar and wind energy systems is that energy is being produced continuously. It isn’t dependent on the conditions of the weather, but rather, on the location itself.
The challenge is in finding a location with a running water source powerful enough to generate the required amount of energy.
Many micro hydropower systems can quite easily reach 10 kWh, which is more than sufficient for a home (Energy.gov).
Two factors that determine how powerful a micro-hydro system will be are, head and flow.
“Head” refers to the height from which water must fall before it reaches the turbine mechanism.
“Flow” refers to the volume of moving water in the river or stream.
Higher head and flow will equate to more potential power.
Aside from determining the amount of potential power that can be generated from your water source, you’d also need to check with local authorities on permit requirements and water rights. The best place to start will be with your state's Department of Environmental Quality.
WaterLily: Portable Hydropower Turbine
The WaterLily Turbine is a portable, lightweight device that uses the power of flowing water to create electricity – which can be used to charge devices or stored in a battery bank. The stronger the water current, the more energy generated. The device requires a minimum flow of 0.7 mph but works best at 7 mph where it can provide its maximum output of 15 Watts.
Multiple Water Lilies can also be daisy-chained in order to generate more power – expanding the possibility of off-grid applications.
- Max Power: 15W
- Connector: USB 2.0 or 2-pin SAE
- Cord Length: 10 feet (3m)
- Weight: 2.85 lb (1.3 kg)
- Size: 7" diameter × 3" thick (180mm × 76mm)
Wood gasification is the process of converting organic material, typically wood, into an energy-rich gas that can either be used for heating, cooking, or to power a generator (Biofuels Academy).
When wood is burned in a furnace or a firepit, about 1/3 of the actual material is converted to flame. The rest of the material is converted to gas and lost in the atmosphere.
A wood gasifier creates an oxygen-deprived environment where much of the gas is collected, purified, and converted into usable energy.
Gasification was invented in the 1800s to power vehicles and provide homes with heat and light. Many of the vehicles in World War 2 were powered by gasification. Natural gas eventually replaced much of its usage throughout the world (wikipedia).
Today, wood gasifiers are still manufactured and used for rural home heating and cooking. They can be used to power a generator without the need for gasoline. With this set-up, a home could essentially draw all of its electrical energy from the trees surrounding it.
Wood gasifiers can also be constructed with fairly simple materials. It is worth mentioning that construction should be done with extreme precision and caution as a faulty gasifier can explode if assembled incorrectly.
This video shows how a wood gasifier is able to power a generator.
Biolite Campstove 2: Portable Wood Generator
While technically not a gasifier, the Biolite Campstove 2 is a portable device that converts organic material such as wood into usable electrical power. Through its patented combustion technology, a heat sensor inside the burn chamber is able to generate 3 watts of electricity from wood flames, allowing you to charge small devices.
It also acts as a campstove for cooking and boiling water. For camping, outdoors, and emergency situations, the Biolite Campstove is a helpful device to have on hand.
Check out our full Biolite Campstove 2 review to see if it's right for you.
- Battery: 3200 mAh
USB Output: 3 watts
Boil Time: 4.5 minutes for 1L
Fuel: Biomass (sticks, twigs, pellets)
Weight: 2.06 lbs (935g)
- Dimensions: Packed: 5.0" x 7.91" (127mm x 201mm)
Hand or foot-powered crank generators create electricity by using human muscle to rapidly move conductive coils through a magnetic field. This continuous process generates a small amount of electricity that can be used to power a light, a radio or charge small devices.
Most crank generators can provide between 5 and 15 watts of energy. While larger, heavy-duty devices can provide up to 50 watts.
Because crank generators aren’t very powerful, they’re generally used as a backup device for emergency situations.
Electric Pedals, a company that specializes in building crank-powered devices, offers a powerful off-grid hand crank on their website. Check it out here: www.electricpedals.com/hand-crank-generator
While the systems mentioned are great examples for obtaining energy, it is important to note that energy must also be stored. Especially for solar, wind, and hydropower, excess energy should be stored in battery banks for later use.
Lead-acid batteries are the most common most cost-efficient type of energy storage. Multiple batteries can be connected together for more storage capacity and can be added to later on as the need arises. Lead-acid batteries do need to be stored in dry, cool areas and require regular maintenance.
Lithium-ion batteries can generally come as a single unit. They’re more energy-efficient, have a longer lifespan, require less maintenance, but are much more expensive.
Portable Lithium Battery Storage
The Yeti 6000X by Goal Zero is one of the most powerful portable power stations available. At 6000 watt-hours of lithium energy, the Yeti 6000X can power a refrigerator, grill, television, and any other appliance a small home or cabin may need.
When paired with portable solar panels, the Yeti 6000X becomes a completely off-grid power station.
- 6000 watt-hours
- 2000 watt AC Inverter
- Output: USB, 12V, 120V AC Inverter
- Weight: 106 lbs (48.1 kg)
- Dimensions: 10.1 x 15.3 x 17 in.
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