Over 25 percent of the world's population lives without access to electricity from a utility-supplied grid [1]. In underdeveloped and developing countries, the reason is primarily a lack of government-sponsored utility infrastructure due to the high cost of power line extension. In developed countries, power line extension costs are again the primary factor in lack of a grid connection, as in most cases the end user must foot the bill for such improvements. In the United States, power line extension can cost over $50,000 per kilometer [2], so the cost of an off-grid electrical system that uses renewable sources to charge a large battery bank for energy storage can compare favorably to that of grid extension—but not always.

However, both the design and implementation of such off-grid renewable energy systems differ greatly from more common grid-tied applications, where the utility grid is used as “battery” with which the system can buy and sell electrical energy from and to the utility as needed. Energy efficiency and conservation are paramount in all off-grid renewable energy system designs, as these measures extend at low cost the hours or days of autonomous operation time before a backup power source (usually an internal-combustion generator) must be used for battery charging during periods of no input from renewable solar, wind, or hydroelectric sources.

The techniques used in designing and operating an off-grid building can seem extreme compared to the norm, and provide a whole set of new challenges if the retrofitting of an existing structure is required. But the lessons learned from these experiences are quite relevant to modern buildings in urban and suburban areas, as the goal is the same—first reduce energy consumption through efficiency and conservation, rather than simply increasing energy production. With off-grid systems, the payback from these measures simply has a more immediate effect. And at the end of the day, non-electrical energy efficiency measures prove to be at least as effective as electrical ones.

This content is only available as a PDF.