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In Depth

Energy
| 04/09/15

Off-grid solar no threat to electric companies

TCE

The inhabitants of British Columbia’s Lasqueti Island became “internet famous” in March after a short documentary about their off-grid community started trending internationally. The village off the east coast of Vancouver Island is home to some 400 back-to-the-land types who depend upon solar power, wood stoves, micro hydro-turbines and gas generators for their energy needs and is not connected to BC Hydro’s electricity grid.

The viral video hit comes as a pair of chemical engineers from the University of Sydney published research in the academic journal Energy Policy interrogating whether such off-grid living could become mainstream and even a threat to utility companies. If batteries begin to enjoy a similar fall in price to that of PV panels, they worry, consumers even in cities far from such island idylls will increasingly be able to store the energy their panels generate, leading to what the companies refer to as “disruptive threats” or even a “death spiral”, ending with people having as little use for traditional energy infrastructure as so many consumers have today for landline telephones, record shops, or video rental outlets.

The researchers produced a model—a decision support tool—to help consumers to figure out when it would make economic sense to cut the cord with the electricity grid. The model incorporated various scenarios for a variety of homes with differing energy demands, various system configurations, regulations and costs. All outcomes suggested that going off-grid may continue to be an exercise in rugged individualism, but in most cases will not produce the best economic outcome. Because PV solar is inherently intermittent—the sun doesn’t always shine (even in the tropics, there is the phenomenon of ‘night’)—going off-grid depends upon better and cheaper energy storage. However, the model showed that for most households, the small-scale panel-and-battery combos they will be able to afford even with significant falls in price, will never produce sufficient energy, so they will have to stay connected in order to ‘top up’ what they produce themselves. But if someone is wealthy enough to afford the sort of large-scale set-up that can manage adequate production, then they are now able to profit substantially by selling excess electricity back to the power companies—and so it makes sense to stay connected.

In depth

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