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June 20, 2024

Been thinking about going off the grid? Here’s some firsthand advice

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Local filmmaker David Lowe went off grid in 2008 and hasn’t regretted it for a day. Photo self portrait by David Lowe

Eve Jeffery

Thinking about going off grid? ‘Do it!’, says local filmmaker David Lowe.

‘Being responsible for your own power (and water, waste, food etc) is a beautiful and life-affirming thing,’ says Lowe. ‘In terms of solar power, I’ve been living this way for over ten years.’

Lowe is just one of a growing number of people who are using the sun to power their lives by living off the grid or using grid-connected solar power.

In his case the system consists of 20 panels generating a maximum of 3.6kW.

‘That’s small by today’s standards, but it was large back in 2008 when it was installed.’

Get the right inverter

The panels work in conjunction with 24 lead-acid batteries supplying 48V, which is converted into 240V by an Australian-made inverter.

‘One key variable is the type of inverter used,’ says director of Juno Energy, Patrick Halliday. ‘It could be a string inverter, an inverter with power optimisers, or micro-inverters (which don’t require a main inverter). In the past European inverters were considered the best option. Today, we understand that in order to maximise performance, the best alternative is optimisation or micro-inverters, because they enable each panel to perform at its maximum capacity.’

A little thought goes a long way

Lowe says his is the kind of system that ‘happily powers a standard fridge, washing machine, water pump, computers, toaster, power tools, and an electric lawnmower etc – as long as you don’t turn everything on at once.’

Lowe says the key thing about living this way is that you have to work with nature. ‘You need to be aware of what the sun is doing, and modify your plans accordingly. Most days the batteries will be recharged quickly and there will be excess power. For prolonged grey periods you need to budget your power and conserve energy, or have a backup generator.’

Lowe says house batteries still have a few sustainability issues, and are expensive to replace, but the technology is evolving quickly, and solar panels are now much cheaper and more efficient than they were in the past.

Managing director of First Sun Solar Jeremy Ball says the price for good-quality solar systems is ridiculously good.

‘I’ve been doing this for 10 years now and we have gone from 20+ year paybacks to good-quality systems paying for themselves in around a year to 18 months for businesses and three to four years for residential.’

Ball says this is fantastic considering the system, once paid for, could provide free electricity for 20–30 or more years. ‘If you use finance to purchase your system you can be cash-flow positive from day one; the system purchases itself. Top-of-the-range systems have a longer payback, but mid-range systems are great quality these days.’

The bottom line? Vincent Selleck, managing director of 888 Solar Tek, says most households will do well with 6.6kW of solar with a 5kW inverter as this is generally the largest size that the network provider, Essential Energy, will allow to connect to the grid for exporting power.

An affordable system

‘Larger systems may be installed but need to limit power output once the 5kW limit is reached. To get a good-quality system with local support and good hardware, the cost range is from $5,000 to $8,000, depending on component brands and quality.

‘These systems will provide about $1,500 to $2,000 in benefit to the household depending on power use patterns and the plan from the electricity retailer.’

Currently households and small businesses across Australia that install a small-scale renewable energy system (solar, wind, or hydro) or eligible hot-water system may be able to receive a government benefit under the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme* (SRES) to help with the purchase cost.

Lowe has no immediate plans to upgrade to the latest technology. ‘You don’t need the latest or most expensive tech to live well with off-grid solar. Old-fashioned liquid acid batteries are big and heavy and need to be topped up with water, but they also do the job, and are recyclable at end of life.’

The key benefit of off-grid solar, apart from no power bills, is that you become a lot more aware of what you’re using, and what the natural world is doing, and that can only be a good thing.

Visit www.energy.gov.au/rebates/renewable-power-incentives.


This article is from The Echo‘s eleventh annual sustainability supplement Sustainability 2019 – hints for living a sustainable life. Check it out for more great tips for those who would like to tread lightly on this planet.

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Been thinking about going off the grid? Here’s some firsthand advice

Thinking about going off grid? ‘Do it!’, says local filmmaker David Lowe.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Loving my change to off grid solar two years ago.
    I only have 8 panels but I live a very simple life and cook with gas so it meets my needs.
    No more power bills – Winning!

  2. Buy one or two $50 electric induction cookers, and you can chuck greenhouse gas emitting gas cooking away for ever.
    You’ll need induction compatible cookware, which is very common nowadays or cast iron.
    It’s heaps faster than gas, and the old archaic element cook tops, which are horridly slow.
    I haven’t used gas since 2009. Ha..

  3. I’ve been off the grid for nearly ten years. I’d advise people to check out Redcell who make Zcell zinc-bromine batteries that are by far the most enviro-friendly. Lithium-ion is becoming a huge problem with millions of batteries world-wide to discard. The Redflow is recyclable, including the solution inside.

    • I love the sound of the ZCell zinc bromide battery. They are an Aussie Company and now have a factory in Bangkok. At last look they were not cheap, but hopefully that will change soon and I will invest in one.

  4. We are 3/4 off grid, startd as a hobby, then became a lifestyle. Waiting to change to gas cooking but Tim mentioned induction cookers. I thought they used massive amps to start but I must be wrong.
    We use 12x 6 volt 530amp AGM batteries at 24 volt and 6000 watt inverter and don’t feed into grid. Would love to go totally off grid but we use the grid for off peak hot water and welding. Am at present designing solar hot water system.

  5. I here Redflow have applied for inclusion of their much better flow battery into some of the states solar and battery schemes. I really hope this innovative Australian company get this battery in a position to replace lithium batteries which are much more suitable for portable devices and electric cars.

  6. I am an Enova Energy Coach. I feel for most people, it is best to stay on the grid, with the grid reliability.

    Some tips to reduce your power bill:
    -Change to more efficient lighting. the old Filament globes, or Halogen lights will cost to run. Changing to more efficient LED globes can save on the bill. Use ´Daylight´ LEDs (also called ´Soft´or ´warm White´) if you want less harsh lighting. or Cool White for a more bright, contrasty light. I saved one homeowner about $5/day by suggesting a change to LEDs (on 40 Halogens! in the house).
    -Heating efficiencies: consider electric throw blankets instead of room heaters.
    -Rural blocks: Pressure Pumps, etc:
    Pressure pumps are prone to problems: the type with a storage bladder can have bladder failure, causing the pump to short cycle (costing you money!) There are now Inverter driven ´Eco´ pressure pumps available that use much less energy. Even better is Gravity feed if a suitable location for a header tank is available. It is even possible to set up a Solar panel+ electronics+ Low voltage pump to transfer water very cost-effectively.
    -Active Septic systems (such as the Taylorex brand). There are efficient Aerator pump upgrades available for older active septic systems. Taylor offers theirs for under $700 + fitting, but the new pump saves on power, & will pay for itself in about 2 years.

    As far as Batteries are concerned, I feel currently the economics are not with Grid connected domestic batteries. But, my suggestion for Solar is to go as big as possible: usually restrained by roof area. Even if you are restricted to 5Kw export, a big system will supply 5Kw for a longer period. In my case, I have a huge 14Kw system with both North & West facing panels that even in winter will generate 30Kw on a sunny day. (Best output was 85Kw one day last summer.) Remember this is an optimised, well designed system.

    If you are considering a Solar system, it is most important to consider the Inverter location. It should be sited in a position protected from direct sun, definitely not on the Western Wall! (Heat kills inverters!)

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