Living off-the-grid in Equinunk: Is off-grid electricity worth it?

September 24, 2023

By Adam Freedgood, SEEDS member and SEEDS Energy Circle Committee contributor

The allure of off-grid life can be strong. Cut out the utility company. Become grid independent. Prepare for emergency scenarios. Plus, many aspects of rural life are already off-grid; for example, well water, septic systems, and homesteading practices. When it comes to electricity, does off-grid independence actually make sense financially or practically? 

For over 8 years, we have operated a 100% off-the-grid, solar-powered cabin in Equinunk that serves as our part-time home. Our experience with off-grid solar has been overwhelmingly positive. Even so, we would not recommend a fully off-grid electricity setup to nearly anyone else we know. To explain why, we’ll share what we have learned about the technology, economics, and lifestyle factors that can make or break off-grid success. 



12 solar panels provide reliable electricity at the Freedgood family’s Equinunk cabin The off-grid system has been online for 8 years and requires $0 utility electricity to power all the conveniences of modern life. Wood provides most of the energy for heating, followed by a propane furnace and hot water heater. 

When it comes to size, scale, and functionality of off-grid energy systems, the only limitations are your budget and your imagination. From an RV-scale system to a college campus microgrid, there are now a wide variety of time tested off-grid power components available. 

The huge drop in solar panel prices has enabled a boom in off-grid interest and feasibility. Specialty retailers such as provide pre-configured systems for DIY-ers, as well as expert design and engineering support to make your project possible. 

Modern off-grid electricity systems can provide for all of your creature comforts and even deliver long term cost savings, but there is a catch. You need to have an appetite to understand, maintain, and, from time to time, troubleshoot the various technologies involved. 

All off-grid power systems consist of components similar to those shown in the diagram below. Despite decades of technological developments, there are no truly plug and play off-grid systems. They take careful planning, tinkering, maintenance, and may come with major capital costs down the line that you will need to save up for. 

For example, we replaced our large battery bank after five years and doubled the number of solar panels so that our system would be more robust for occasionally renting out our cabin. 

Caption: An off-grid electricity system consists of: solar panels, a battery bank, and an inverter/charger unit. The inverter converts DC electricity from the batteries and solar panels into household AC electricity to feed your electrical panel and circuits. Integrating a generator provides some extra flexibility and resilience in the cold winter months, which tend to starve off-grid systems of much needed solar energy and cut battery performance dramatically. These electrical components may not be the only aspect of your off-grid setup to figure out. You may need to change heating system components, add insulation to your home, and forego major appliances such as space heaters or window air conditioners. 

After learning about our off-grid system, our friends in Equinunk, the Quilty family, designed their own. It powers a 3 bedroom log-style modular home where they live year-round.

While cost savings might be a factor, off-grid systems are not likely to have the strong return-on-investment (ROI) of traditional grid-tied solar. When you pursue off-grid electricity, you are making a decision to take on the responsibilities and associated costs of all the services that the utility company normally provides. That comes with a cost. 

You make a fixed, up-front investment in equipment in exchange for eliminating your monthly electricity bill and some of your fuel costs. The lower ROI of off-grid systems has a simple explanation: your solar panels cannot export any energy. You use it or lose it. 

On the contrary, grid-tied solar panels are designed to give you the power you need when you need it while exporting excess power back to the utility grid. You then receive a credit on your bill each month. 

To put it simply, off-grid solar “wastes” some of the energy you produce and that comes with a higher capital cost than conventional solar. 

Can an off-grid electricity system save you money in the long run? Possibly. We estimate that we would have paid the local utility at least $10,000 in monthly energy bills over the past eight years, plus the $32,000 fee to connect to the grid in the first place, for a total of $42,000 in electricity-related costs. Our off-grid system cost around $15,000 up-front. It has periodic maintenance costs such as replacing $2,400 worth of batteries once every five years. Even so, it has paid for itself more than two times over. 

But our situation may be the exception and not the rule. For most people, a comparable $15,000 investment in grid-tied solar panels will lower their annual electricity costs by 50 to 100 percent, with the potential to return around four times the initial investment over the life of the system. 

Life goals

The most important factor in the off-grid equation is neither the tech nor the economics, it’s the lifestyle you value and the goals you seek to accomplish by going off-the-grid. The life goals that support off-grid electricity go beyond basic resiliency and even environmentalism. 

Off-grid system owners typically want to achieve reliable electricity service in a location where grid connections are not available. They might consider themselves early adopters of new technologies and have a frontier spirit. They might also be passionate about self-reliance. Severing a utility connection can serve as a badge of honor or demonstrate freedom from outside interference. 

If, on the other hand, you are simply fed up with utility blackouts and want to stay powered-up during outages, you might be better off with a traditional backup generator or a grid-tied solar and battery storage solution. 

Traditional residential solar coupled with battery storage allows your solar panels to function as an off-grid system during an extended utility outage, similar to having a gas-powered generator. Plus, over the next few years, battery storage is on-track to become cheaper and more reliable than using a conventional backup generator.   

Is off-grid solar right for you? Take our short quiz: 

  1. Is it cost prohibitive, or impossible, to get utility electric service established at your site?
  2. Do you consider yourself to be adventurous and enjoy playing with technology (including troubleshooting technical issues when needed)?
  3. Are you prepared to get very up-close and personal with your energy consumption and potentially invest in other improvements for your home (e.g. insulation, alternate heating systems, etc.)?
  4. Is it important to you to be able to have extremely reliable electricity in the event of grid outages and emergencies, beyond what you can achieve with a typical backup generator?
  5. Are you considering off-grid for your full-time residence?
  6. Is doing the right thing for the environment an important, but secondary priority for you? 

If you answered YES to most of these questions, off-grid solar with battery storage might be right for you. Otherwise, you might be better off with a traditional grid-tied solar energy system that can slash or eliminate your electricity costs without requiring any lifestyle changes whatsoever. 

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