On-Grid, Off-Grid, and Hybrid Solar Systems

With solar energy, you basically have two options. Grid-tied and Off-Grid. These basically describe if you are tied to a local electrically company or are independently producing your own electricity. .

Both have advantages and disadvantages. Both ways will produce clean energy at a lower cost. Your carbon footprint will be lower and you will use less fossil fuels.

This article will teach you about the differences between on and off-grid so you can decide which one is best for you.

If you are just getting started learning about solar energy check out my article Let the Sun Shine in!

Grid-Tied

Grid-tied simple means that you are still connected to the electric company that services your area. In the same way that others in your neighborhood are connected to your local power company you will be also. However, you have solar panels that are connected to the junction box and a specialized meter for your home.

In most cases when the power company connects to a home, they put in a bidirectional or power utility meter. This lets them know how much electricity your home is using. Then they bill you based on that usage. This is called net-metering.

When your home has solar panels, in addition to your conventional electric lines, you will use a specialized meter. It will not spin when your home uses energy derived from your photovoltaic panels. So you will save money on your bill.

Pros of Being Grid-Tied

Your solar panels can be your primary source of electricity. On a sunny day, you can be running all your energy needs from your photovoltaic panels. However, sometimes you just need more electricity to meet your power needs. Maybe you are doing a lot of laundry or its cloudy and you are not getting sunshine. In that instance, your home switches to conventional electric supplied by your utility company.

Batteries for solar systems are expensive, require maintenance and have some safety precautions. If you have your back up power in the utility you do not have these concerns. It is important to note that the size of your battery bank must meet the needs of your energy usage.

Being grid-tied allows you to have things that are not well supported by an off-grid system. For instance, air-conditioning takes a lot of power to run. Your typical battery bank will not support a window unit much less a central air system.

You will always have power even when it snows, the weather is cloudy or you live in a northern latitude.

Cons of Being Grid-Tied

Some utility companies have requirements that they enforce when attached to their power source. These may include whether you can connect batteries to their system or not.

Batteries are actually a big deal. Keep reading.

If you are connected to the grid and do not have batteries your power will shut off during times the electric grid is down such as during a power outage. This is for safety reasons. When the utility workers are repairing the poles and wires, there should be no electricity flowing through the grid as they can be electrocuted.

If you are grid-tied but have battery storage your house will continue to receive power during a public utility outage. The energy that is stored in the batteries will provide power to your home.

Net Metering

Net metering is offered by some utility companies. It is only for people that are tied to the grid and must be offered by your local utility. Electric companies are not required to offer net-metering and different states have their own regulations. Look up your states net metering laws.

With net metering you can get credit for the energy you create with your solar panels. With net metering, you can actually sell electric to your power company. That is if you produce extra after your own needs are met.

So just to be clear – you can be grid-tied and not have the ability to sell back your extra energy to the local electric company. It is the utility companies who decide if they decide to offer that or not.

Homes on net metering have a bidirectional meter. A bidirectional meter spins two ways.  In this case, your meter can actually run backward. When it runs backward you have excess electricity being produced from your home.

When the bidirectional meter runs forward your energy company is charging you. One thing to note. Your meter “spins” at a rate commiserate with your energy use. So for example, you are doing a load of dishes in the dishwasher, the lights are on and you decided to defrost something in the microwave.

Want to know how much electic your appliances and tools use? Buy a kilowatt meter and it will tell you. Helps with planning your solar system.

Your solar panels may be providing 65% of the energy your home is currently using. The other 35% comes from the grid. In this case, your meter will turn but not as fast as if you were not adding that solar boast.

With net metering, you can get a payback from the electric company. At the end of your billing cycle, you may get either a credit or a check that represents what you have contributed via your solar production.

Problems With Net Metering

Keep in mind that net metering is subject to changes in regulations which may not be favorable to the homeowner. For instance, in my state of Kentucky, we recently had a bill pass that benefited the electric companies and may make it more expensive for the homeowner to recoup their investment.

Previously the utility companies in the state had to offer a simple one-for-one credit. Meaning for each kilowatt-hour you put into the grid via your solar you will get one kilowatt back from the utility.

Starting in January 2020, Kentucky power companies will be allowed to set new rates for grid-tied customers. At this time we do not know what those rates are going to be.

Photo credit: Micha Jost

Photo credit: Micha Jost

More and more power companies around the United States are establishing base service rates. These are fees that everyone pays to offset their general expenses.

Off-Grid

When you are off-grid your house runs completely off alternative energy. That may be solar or wind, but for the sake of this discussion, we are talking solar.

You can be off-grid virtually anywhere unless it is against zoning ordinances in your community. Off-grid works in both rural or urban areas. The more important question is do you get enough sunlight.

Pros of Being Off-Grid

I have a confession, in complete transparency (big smile), I am all in favor of being off-grid. I have twenty fives years of experience with living without conventional electricity.

Many people desire off-grid systems because they wish to be independent of the power company. Being off-grid puts you in control of your energy. You will also not be affected by local power outages or failures in the grid.

Being off-grid means you have no monthly electric bill. Once your solar system pays for itself, you are getting electricity for zero dollars. This return on investment (ROI) is going to vary with the size and cost of your system.

Many find it hard to believe but yes in this day and age many Americans live where there are no power options. Or it may cost many thousands of dollars to run electric to their home.

This is also favorable if you want to have an eco-friendly lifestyle free from dependency on fossil fuels.

Cons of Being Off-Grid

In an off-grid system, you are dependent on a battery system to store power for the times your panels are not producing such as nighttime, cloudy or snowy weather. Batteries are expensive, take maintenance and have safety precautions.

The size of your panels and the size of your batteries are very important. They have a direct impact on what you can run and for how long.

Being off-grid does take more knowledge and experience because you need to figure out how much electricity will it take to power “that”. Earlier I mentioned that battery power does not readily support air conditioning. It also does not like electric heat or stoves.

Your solar system will support fans. I find that adequate but you may not. These are the kind of decisions you will need to make.  

A Hybrid System

OK – so there is a third option.

A hybrid system that is either part of a larger transitioning plan or a way to help you during power outages. Sometimes you may not have the money to purchase a complete solar system. There are many small steps you can do to work towards solar independence.

This is what I did, although we started with NO electric and gradually built up to having a solar-powered home. I have built two off-grid homes. There was no money for a large solar array (or even a small one) so we made do with gradual changes. Money was needed for lumber to get the structure built. So I put in solar in baby steps.

Why Do People Prefer Off-Grid When Conventional is Available?

Grid failures are becoming a stark reality. Our electric in America largely depends on an outdated infrastructure that is prone to failures.  In addition, acts of domestic and foreign terrorism against the grid are real and do happen.

Ted Koppel wrote a fabulous book called Lights Out: a cyber attack, a nation unprepared, surviving the aftermath. It is one of my favorites. I highly recommend you read it.

What will you do when the lights go out for more than a few hours? Having some backup solar can be a Godsend when the electric fails. Even if it is just for a few hours. However, if you watch the news you will see how many all over the country are experiencing outages due to storms, fires or other catastrophes.

Having a few solar lights can help you go through your daily routine or comfort a scared child. Having a few back up solar devices can keep communication such as your cell phone or radio running.

Take Away

At the end to grid or not to grid will be a very personal decision. It will depend on what resources you have available to you and honestly your comfort level.

For me, I prefer to do without many things that you may consider a necessity. I wash dishes by hand. I have box fans to cool my house and barn. I have a wood stove. There are electric options for them. I prefer to use my solar panels for the basics needs I have. More on that in another blog…

Ame Vanorio is a former science and special education teacher, the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She teaches classes locally and online about organic gardening, green building, living off-grid and wildlife conservation. In addition, she is a freelance writer and writes for several gardening, tiny house and pet websites. She lives a sustainable life on her Kentucky farm with a myriad of domestic and wild animals. 

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