Depending the definition used for “off the grid”, certain power sources may not live up to its name of being truly off the grid. This post will sort out which power sources may not be fully off the grid due to certain degrees of reliance on any aspect of a larger infrastructural network , as well as identify power sources that are genuinely stand alone, and self sustaining in the long term.
Most of us have a basic understanding of how the grid works. Basically, energy is generated at power plants, then heads to substations before being split up by smaller, lower voltage, local distribution systems that connect to homes and businesses.
It goes without saying in the prepper community that the main disadvantage of the grid is a vulnerability to fail without notice due to a plethora of reasons. The potential threats include weather (being by far the most common), cyber attack, terrorist attack, failure from wear, commodity prices, political and economic stability, and yes, even squirrels. The US power grid is aging and becoming more expensive to maintain and upgrade. From the user end, those threats translate into potentially deadly scenarios, especially if a potential outage is occurs becomes prolonged and hits a large population or city center.
It’s not surprising then, that more people worldwide, (over 1.7 billion and growing) are opting to trade in the grid for alternative power sources. The problem is, that if the strict definition of “off the grid” is applied, many power sources may be mistaken for being off the grid, when technically they are not. If survival is at stake, it’s important to make a clear distinction between stand alone power sources and those that rely on grid infrastructure.
The below list of power sources does not make the grade for being truly stand alone off grid, because they rely on a large scale infrastructure support network in order to be reliably delivered to the consumer. As you will see, each of these sources rely heavily on energy, transpiration (roads, bridges), and communications infrastructure network.
Natural Gas is used in nearly 70 million homes and businesses in the US to for heating, cooking, and generating electricity and for a wide range of industrial uses. The process for extracting, processing, and transporting natural gas is quite complex and relies on elaborate network thousands of miles of turbine compressed pipeline to be delivered to homes. While natural gas can be stored in tanks around your home or business and used during short term supply outages, it would eventually run out if any point along it’s complicated infrastructure network were compromised and brought down by natural disaster, attack, etc.
Propane is produced from natural gas processing and petroleum refining as a byproduct, and is stored in massive salt caverns in Canada, Texas, and Kansas. Delivery is handled via pipeline, truck, ship barge and railway. It’s commonly used for heating and cooking due to its low boiling point which makes it easy to store and use without a vaporizing device or carburetor. It works great as a backup for generating electricity in remote areas because it transports easier than natural gas without pipeline, and is a popular home heating fuel. Because it relies on natural gas processing and petroleum refining, it’s production and distribution networks are equally complex and susceptible to potential supply interruptions for any given reason. Not an ideal SHTF power source in the long run since it’s bound to run out on site.
Kerosene , also known as lamp oil, is easier to produce and store than natural gas and is commonly used for lighting, heating, and cooking when electricity is not available or desired. Kerosene relies on the same complex production network used for crude oil, using “fractional distillation”. Crude oil must be extracted then distilled, then it needs to be purified using a series of chemical
reactors, then further purified to remove secondary contaminants. Like natural gas, if any point in this chain where to fail kerosene delivery would halt. If you’re relying on kerosene as your off the grid SHTF solution to energy, head caution, because your tanked stores would become depleted in the case of infrastructure failure.
Gasoline is a common fuel for back up electricity generators around homes, businesses, and in “off grid” locations, and is used in 255.8 million passenger vehicles in the US. Again, gasoline production may not be tied directly to the electric grid, but it has a production and distribution infrastructure grid that is arguably as complex.
Like natural gas, kerosene, and propane, gasoline relies on crude oil or petroleum refinement. This expensive process requires exploration, drilling, recovery even before it’s refined. The main distinction between gasoline and the previously mentioned fuels is the voracious demand for it, which add additional supply risk during shortages. There will be more people will want it, so there would be less to go around during a supply interruption.
Coal production is simpler than the four previous types of fuel production, but it also runs into its own version of complexity. While coal is easier to extract and process than other fossil fuels due to it being closer to the surface and needing less refining before it’s delivered to market, it relies on mining and transportation methods that require gasoline or diesel. Heavy excavators are used to mine coal, and 60 percent of coal is moved through the US by rail. The remaining portions are transported by waterways on barges, and trucks.
Complexity and Inter-connectedness
Each of these four fuel sources have two main traits making them less than ideal for standalone, off the grid use: complexity and interconnectedness. The processes required to deliver these fuels to the end user require immense amounts of specialized skill, capital, mechanical and chemical processes, and coordination to all work in harmony and with the timing of a symphony. If any point in the process, (and there are a lot of points) ,where crude oil production were impeded, gasoline, propane, and natural gas production could also be interrupted.
Stand alone power sources are those that do not rely on constant supply inputs from large, grid-dependent infrastructure networks such as those described above. Sure, substantial material and skill inputs may be required initially for design, parts manufacturing, assembly, installation and training of users to implement, operate and maintain them, but once they are set up and running, they can sustainably generate power without major material and skill inputs for the long term, as we will see.
Micro hydropower is a lesser known method to generate small scale off grid energy. Advantages of micro hydropower is it’s level of efficiency and reliability. It has the potential to deliver constant energy day and night and it requires as little as two gallons per minute of water flowing up to a mile away from the user. It’s also more cost effective than other stand along technologies, costing between $1,000 and $20,000. The main drawback of micro hydropower is it relies on a source of water running from high to low ground, such as a river or a stream, to generate electricity.
It works by diverting water to a water conveyance, such as a pressurized pipeline or channel where the water is forced through a turbine. The turbine spins a shaft that turns a generator or alternator to generate electricity. Or, the shaft can be connected to a mechanical process such as to pumping water, for example.
Solar has become widely known as a reliable and increasingly cost effective method to generate off grid power. Cost per kilowatt has dropped by roughly 100% since 2008, and is forecasted to continue dropping. With no moving parts it’s also cheap to maintain. Basically, photovoltaic cells generate electricity from sunlight by stripping electrons from atoms in the titanium dioxide (TiO2) layer, using light particles, or photons from the sun. Solar panels create an electric field from alternating positive and negative layers of cells that feed these particles through metal conductive plates that transfer the electrons to wires.
The major drawback of solar is its dependence on weather and may be limited to variations in sunlight exposure from region to region. Solar cannot generate power at night either. Solar energy can be stored, but a few days of no sun will impact it’s performance.
While solar panels do age and eventually need to be replaced, their lifespan can reach 20 to 25 years before needing to be replaced. While this could qualify solar as less than stand alone, 25 years buys a lot of time to source and implement a different energy strategy, if the option of replacing the panels is not viable. Plus, by the end of a solar panel’s lifespan, energy continues to be generated at 80% of its original output which is still quite substantial.
Wind energy is growing at a similar pace, with the costs decreasing nearly as rapidly as solar. While wind generators have moving parts, the complexity is relatively low. Blades mounted on a tower catches the wind that turns a generator to create electricity. However, wind generators require scheduled routine maintenance to keep the blades turning.
Gearboxes and bearings wear out and require rebuilds, bolts need to be tightened, and the moving parts lubricated. With the stresses of varying wind gusts and storms, the gearbox is the Achilles heel of the wind turbine. With maintenance, the lifespan of wind generators is still about 20 years, leaving plenty of time to switch energy sources if your wind source goes down during a SHTF period. Additionally, while wind generators require specialized skill to maintain, the likelihood of sourcing that skill is far greater than the pool of skill and resources required to manufacture a new solar panel or refine petroleum for fossil fuels during dire circumstances.
Geothermal energy is often overlooked as a standalone energy source for heating and cooling a structure. It works in almost any location by transferring temperatures that remain at a consistent 50 to 60 degrees from below the fist 10 feet under the earth’s surface, into homes or businesses. It does this by using a thermal heat exchange that loops underground to “catch” and transfer the temperatures using a liquid mixed with antifreeze that is pumped through the system. The energy is delivered into the structure using a pump to remove it from the heat exchange system and into a network of ducts to blow air into rooms. Often times a geothermal system is not powerful enough to cover all heating or cooling needs, but it can significantly reduce costs.
There is over 50,0000 times more energy at earth’s surface than all natural gas and oil resources in the world combined, and it’s thought the earth will not be cooling down for millennia! It certainly makes sense to utilize this energy source, and consider using other stand along energy sources, such as wind, solar, etc, as supplemental to geothermal.
Maintenance of geothermal systems could potentially be contracted out to easily accessible skillets, such as a local HVAC company, or anyone with knowledge of pumps, air ducts and piping. Maintenance is less even less than air conditioners, and furnaces. If you’re serious about stand alone off grid energy, due to is low maintenance requirements and long term reliability, geothermal should seriously be considered as main component in a hybrid system coupled with solar, wind, hydropower, or as we will see next, wood.
Wood burning may seem primitive and minute compared to other energy sources, but it is no doubt, stand alone and reliable. Any able bodied person can cut wood to use to cook and generate heat . All that’s needed is a way to start a fire. While on a mass scale over time it harvesting wood for energy would not be sustainable, nearly 30 percent of earths’ surface is covered by trees, so they are readily available for any short-term SHTF scenario. Wood burning could at least buy more time to develop another energy strategy. Wood could also be used in barter transactions if necessary.
Please leave your comments below and let me know if I missed mentioning other stand alone energy sources, or energy sources that are less stand alone. I hope you enjoyed reading this and got something out of it.