Unplugging from the grid

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Will the future allow the average household to unplug from the electricity grid and rely on self-generation? We look at the issues and what two Australians are doing now.

The idea isn't new. Rural Australians living beyond the reach of electricity networks have been providing their own power for years. Alternators run by petrol or diesel engines are commonplace, more recently complemented by alternate energy systems like wind generators, solar panels, battery banks and inverters.

Now new electricity storage products - such as the Magellan Residential Energy Storage System, Tesla Powerwall, PowerLegato and Enphase - raise the prospect of households that are currently using network electricity simply opting out, or even buying and storing power from the grid when rates are low for use at peak times.

Not surprisingly, one of the main obstacles to leaving the grid is the upfront cost and resulting time it takes to make a return on your investment. Some claim that the falling costs of alternate energy solutions make this less of an issue.

Not surprisingly, one of the main obstacles to leaving the grid is the upfront cost and resulting time it takes to make a return on your investment.

Off-grid in the suburbs

Off-grid urban resident Michael Mobbs lives in an inner Sydney terrace built in 1894 and advises on sustainable living.

Mobbs first went off-grid in 1996, and then opted for a second stage in March 2015 when new technology became available. The first solar-based implementation cost $26,000. This year he paid $25,000 for more powerful panels and batteries.

His solar electricity panels have 4.5kWh capacity. Lithium-ion batteries provide 10kWh of storage, enough for two days when no energy is incoming. He still uses gas for cooking.

He says he will never go back on-grid. "It's liberating, and I feel better about stopping my pollution. What's unusual is I'm doing it in the heart of the city."

Off-grid in the country

Rural-dweller Robert Sharman has been involved with renewable energy for nearly 30 years. Sharman runs Tasman Energy, a business specialising in renewable energy information.

In 1993, he moved to a bush property of 12 hectares. The cost of getting electricity connected to the property was prohibitive, so he started with a small solar array and truck batteries. His off-grid system is about 1500 watts of solar, a 400-watt micro-hydroelectric system that is used in winter when there is a lot of rain, and a couple of vintage stationary engines that run mostly on home-made biodiesel.

Power generated during the day can be stored in batteries for nighttime use.

"I have two vintage stationary engines that serve as back-up power generators - they are battery chargers, not conventional generators - and in winter, when there is no sun and not enough rain for the micro hydro, they run for around 10 hours per week," he says.

"I run everything I want to: I have a comprehensive woodworking workshop, most kitchen appliances and a dishwasher. If it is cloudy I will start an engine to maintain the battery charge. I would not consider getting the grid connected to anywhere I lived."