Going off the electric grid good for remote properties, costly for close-in homes

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Thinking about building a mountain retreat in a remote area? Fascinated with the idea of producing your own electric power? Heard about the possibilities of building an off-grid system and wondering how difficult and expensive it might be? Sam Burnham of Fort Collins-based Burnham & Sun may have some good advice.

Burnham, who has been supplying solar electric products and services in Northern Colorado and southern Wyoming since 2000, cautions that the off-grid option is usually not for those currently tied into an electric utility company. “Off-grid systems are battery based and very expensive when large enough to power a typical suburban home. Off-grid makes financial sense when building or living in a remote area where it is impossible or prohibitively expensive to tie into an electric power company,” she says.

But consumers tied to an electric utility who are interested in generating their own “green” power and reducing their utility bills can take advantage of net-metering systems that keep track of the energy they use and the amount of power they are able to return to the grid. Electric utility companies credit their customers the going per-kilowatt-hour energy rate for the power they make.

Burnham says grid-tied net-metering systems are available with or without battery back-up. Grid-tied solar systems without batteries are expensive, but during a power outage, such a solar system will be down as well, even if the sun is shining on the solar modules. Grid-tied battery back-up systems are more expensive but provide power to selected loads (part rather than all of a house) during a grid power outage. Power is maintained only in essential areas of a house in order to keep system size and cost manageable.

The cost of photovoltaic (solar electric) modules has decreased dramatically in the last three years and a federal tax credit of 30 percent for residential and commercial solar installations on and off the grid make going solar more appealing than ever.