Best Off-Grid Power Systems for Your Cabin

If you're contemplating off-grid power for your cabin or summer house, start here to learn the differences between solar, wind and water power.

Off-grid power has the potential to offer electrical freedom, if you have the money and skills to set up a functional system. So far, more than 180 000 American families live fully off-grid, and that number is rapidly growing. Off-grid power has many benefits, as well as some considerable drawbacks.

If you’re considering going off-grid with your cabin, keep reading and learn the ins and outs of off-grid power.

What Is Off-Grid Power?

Off-grid power is the harnessing of electricity independent of utilities, such as the electrical grid, through a renewable resource. The three main methods of off-grid power production are solar, wind, and micro-hydro. All convert their energy source to direct current electricity, unlike the alternating current provided by electrical grids worldwide.

Direct current electricity involves the energized electrons that create power flowing in only one consistent direction. Alternating current involves a constant switching of the electrons’ direction. In the U.S. this switch happens 60 times each second.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Off-Grid Power

Off-grid power has many benefits, including:

  • Full energy independence, freeing you from tapping into the nearest grid and paying the power company each month for the privilege.
  • A nearly non-existent carbon footprint, an attractive option for those concerned about their impact on the environment.
  • A way to sidestep the fear by some folks that the grid infrastructure will eventually collapse, along with the economy.

Off-grid power system drawbacks include:

  • A system completely independent of the grid requires expensive equipment, which the owner must buy and set up before switching on the lights. On a personal note: When my wife and I were building our cabin in the woods of Ontario, Canada, we initially looked at solar energy as our main source of electricity. Trouble was, even a simple system would have cost us nearly $30,000 and still not satisfied all our electrical needs.
  • Off-grid power systems are location dependent. Depending on the type you choose, it won’t produce energy all or even most of the time, requiring a backup generator to pick up the slack.

Off-Grid Power System Options

Solar energy

Solar energy is harnessed using photovoltaic panels which convert sunlight to electricity.

Pros: Of the three main types of off-grid energy, solar is most practical, because it needs the fewest special conditions to work. All you need is a reasonably sunny location. Most places in the world qualify.

Cons: Solar provides the least electrical bang for your buck (setup cost per kilowatt hour of output) thanks to the high cost of equipment. It’s also a sporadic energy source. Factoring in cloudy days and nighttime, your system will harness the sun’s power less than half the time. That means relying on a backup generator and bank of batteries.

Wind energy

Wind energy turns the motion of air into electricity using a turbine and generator. Wind moves the blades of the turbine, causing the internal generator to spin and produce electricity, which is fed into the system demanding energy.

Pros: Setup costs are lower than solar, making wind the middle runner in initial outlay.

Cons: Many places aren’t windy enough for the system to work. Turbulence or “dirty wind” is also a problem. Even if your location is extremely windy, it won’t do you any good if it swirls aimlessly instead of blowing in a consistent direction. Wind turbines need large areas of open space to work properly. And like solar, wind energy is far from constant.

Micro-hydro energy

Micro-hydro energy works much like wind energy, using naturally occurring motion to spin a turbine, converting movement to electricity. The motion in this case is the flow of water.

Pros: Micro-hydro produces the most electricity per financial investment. It’s also a constant energy source, as long as the water source exists.

Cons: Lack of viable locations. Only a few places in the world offer water sources with enough volume and sufficient “head” (distance the water descends vertically over a given horizontal distance) to provide a meaningful amount of energy.