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The economic fallout from recent global events has seen wholesale fossil fuel prices rise dramatically as supply and demand drive a noticeable spike in inflation around the world. This is to be expected given that global infrastructure is still largely dependent on these fuels including for transport, heavy industry, and energy production, but while these hikes may only be felt in the short to medium term, a lot of households are already struggling with the immediate cost of living.
Off-shore wind is now nine times cheaper than fossil fuels
This news comes as the cost of renewable energy generation hits a record low, where for example off-shore wind in the UK is now reported to cost around nine times less than natural gas. However, there are still challenges in the plan to implement a reliable clean energy mix, that are predominantly driven by the need for electrical storage. So, while this is still an issue on a macro scale and in the interest of finding practical solutions to potentially ease the more immediate cost of living, is it possible to take advantage of renewable microgeneration, and in particular, storage technologies at home instead?
The state of renewables and storage
Renewable microgeneration has become an increasingly popular investment for homeowners that has been driven largely by the falling cost of solar panels and increasing levels of financial support in much the same way as we are now seeing with heat pumps. These systems are often connected to the local electricity grid wherein individual producers have the option to either use their clean energy at source or export it at a fixed rate. However, given the rising price of energy and changing government policy, there is now much more of an incentive to produce, use and store this free energy as much as possible.
Obviously, during a cost-of-living crisis, the practicality of investing in domestic renewables will always be a matter of upfront cost and cash flow. For example, the average domestic solar array in the UK costs around £6500, a price that has fallen significantly over the last few years and has the potential to save up to an estimated £514 a year. Nevertheless, the initial outlay may make this inaccessible to a lot of people, and perhaps not overly practical if you are looking for a quick return.
Tesla Powerwalls are a good off-the-shelf option but expensive
In much the same way, off-the-shelf battery storage solutions like the Tesla Powerwall can help store a great deal more of this free energy, allowing us to save even more on our bills while giving us a good insight into how well decentralised clean energy infrastructure can work, but may cost just as much if not more than the renewables needed to charge it in the first place. So, these solutions are feasible on a smaller scale but how do we make it easier to take advantage of these technologies?
The engineering perspective
Luckily, as makers and engineers, there are options available for those of us that are willing to get our hands dirty. For existing solar setups, there are also ways to make better use of available free energy, such as using an immersion heater to store energy as hot water. It is also possible to build a homemade storage system using a grid-compliant storage inverter and a much broader choice of batteries. This method not only gives you more control over the design but also the cost, as the system can be built for less than their off-the-shelf counterparts and expanded as budgets allow. However, you still may need the approval of an electrician and the local grid operator which is worth researching beforehand.
One of the best things about renewables is how inexpensive and scalable they can be, but as we have seen, the most restrictive and costly factors associated with domestic systems is the need to be compliant with local infrastructure, even though you may well be exporting at a relative loss compared to the import rate of fossil fuel derived mains energy. Maybe then, this is a good incentive to simply go completely off-grid, especially when you can have a lot more creative control over how the system is constructed, and how much it will ultimately cost as it scales.
The off-grid solar and storage system used in my campervan
The only limits of these systems will depend on what you can get away with in terms of building regulations and other legal requirements, but there are plenty of examples of off-grid systems working exceptionally well in remote communities, outbuildings, offices, boats and of course campervans. Off-grid equipment is also, perhaps ironically, a lot more accessible and affordable for those who may benefit immensely from their use during the rise in the cost of living, so even if you just want to boil a kettle or run a microwave, it might be worth a look.