Off the Grid Electricity: The “Power” of Self Reliance

By , September 18, 2009

Let me confess to you up front: I am not an electrician. I know very little about electricity. I survived a whole career requiring daily use of electronic equipment without ever electrocuting myself or becoming more comfortable with or knowledgeable of electricity. I managed well, even learning to take apart computers to install hard drives and other risky activities, but avoided doing it whenever possible.

Then we moved to our homestead. I suddenly became the owner of an off the grid power system. I was forced to come to terms with electricity on some level.

The Zeiger homestead's "Power Point"

The Zeiger Homestead’s “Power Point”: Windcharger 1200 on left, Southwest Windpower W100 on right, solar array below. The satellite Internet dish in the foreground is the main beneficiary of the electricity generated. (Photo: Mark Zeiger.)

We have generated our own power using two wind generators that came with the property, and a solar array which we bought and installed after moving here.

This has been a radical lifestyle change—perhaps the most radical, rivaling even the transition away from indoor plumbing. As Americans, we are not used to taking responsibility for our own power. We take for granted that electricity comes to us from elsewhere, and we use it as much as we want. Sure, there are outages, but when those happen, someone else brings the power back. All we have to do is pay the bill and keep from sticking things in the outlets we ought not to.

On the homestead, we take all the responsibility. We maintain our off the grid system, repair it when necessary; add to it when we can. We watch the weather, track the daylight, and watch for wind. It’s not always easy or comfortable, but we can do it.

With the responsibility comes freedom. Living on the grid in Juneau, we had more than our share of power outages. On the one hand, all we had to do was to sit and wait for power to be restored, it was all we could do. Using off the grid power, we have to restore the power ourselves, but by the same token we don’t have to rely on someone else to do it for us. Learning to fix the system has been a frustrating, nerve-wracking, but ultimately empowering experience for us.

The education continues. We’ve had many electrical adventures, some of which I’ll be detailing in future posts. I’ll try to share what I’ve learned, pass on any tricks, perhaps entertain you with our more precarious situations. All of these point to the bottom line: if I have had such success managing our personal power generation, it must not be very difficult. After all, there was a time, before the Great Depression and the Public Works Projects that created the country’s power grid, when most residents of the Great Plains owned and operated similar systems, many of them with less education than mine.

Now, as we enter a new era of power use and generation, I’m confident that many of us who, like me, felt they could never manage their own electrical generation can, in fact, do just that with an off the grid power system. If you’re considering augmenting your home with solar or wind power, or even freeing yourself from the overburdened, overpriced, and in some cases failing power grid, now is the time! It’s not going to be as hard as you might think.

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