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How an Off-Grid Solar System Can Help You Become Energy Independent

With the current state of energy prices, it makes more sense now than ever to invest in solar panels. 
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The idea of living off the grid is getting a lot of attention at the moment. As ever, part of the attraction is the idea of living more independently and sustainably. Nowadays, though, there are two new reasons why people want to live off-grid:

  • The National grids are very expensive
  • The National grids can be unreliable
 

Nowadays, people want to live off the grid for practical and financial reasons as well.

When it comes to finding a way to generate off-grid electricity, the first thing people think about is usually solar panels. Often, this is just because that’s what they’re most familiar with. They’re quite right too, though. Solar panels, as well as being well known, are the most affordable and effective way of independently producing electricity.

What most people want is to know whether they can build a solar panel system on their house that will allow them to live completely off the grid, straight away.

When attempting to go off-grid, most people will find the following applies:

  • Most solar panel systems allow for partial off-grid living
  • Living completely off-grid is possible but quite difficult to achieve
  • For complete off-grid living, alternative sources of energy are likely to be needed as well

Most Houses With Solar Panels Still Use Grid Electricity

One basic thing to know is that the vast majority of houses that have solar panels fitted still use grid electricity. What happens is that the household uses their solar electricity as much as possible, and then they supplement this with grid electricity when they have to.

How Much Electricity Do Normal Solar Panel Systems Produce?

Here’s a breakdown of how much electricity typical solar panel systems produce and what proportion of a household’s total usage will be. We’ve also included figures on what the financial savings will be as well.


Figures are based on the following:

  • Typical annual electricity use figures for different household types provided by Ofgem. These figures are for households that use both electricity and gas. You can see the figures here
  • Each household makes use of 55% of the electricity its solar panels produce and exports 45% to the grid – this is a typical figure
  • Electricity costing 34 pence per kWh – this was the average cost in the UK in 2022

 

Household Size/Type

UK Average Annual Electricity Consumption

Typical Solar Panel System for This Household

Solar System Electricity Output

Household Use of Solar Electricity in Percentage

Annual Financial Savings

2 bedroom flat/house

1800kWh

2.5kW

1980kW

60%

£370

2 – 3 bedroom house

2900kWh

3.5kW (this is the average size for the UK)

2775kW

53%

£518

5 bedroom house

4300kWh

6kW

4775kW

61%

£811


As you can see, solar panel systems don’t normally allow you to live completely off the grid. This might seem like a shame at first, but if you read on you’ll find out that these figures are quite impressive. True off-grid living is quite difficult to achieve and in many situations it’s unfeasible.

One thing to note is that it may be possible to substantially improve the figures for the usage of solar panel electricity. Two pieces of technology that can help are:

With solar batteries and solar diverters, you can optimise your solar panel system by using as much of your electricity in your house as possible.

Is it Possible to Live Off the Grid With Solar Panels?

Living completely off the grid in the UK with solar panels alone is technically possible. The big problem that people face, however, is that solar panels produce electricity at inconvenient times.

  • Most households use far more energy in the winter than they do in the summer  
  • On most days, energy demands are higher in the evening than during the day
  • Solar panels produce electricity during the day and they produce more in the summer
 

Storing electricity that’s produced by solar panels during the daytime for use in the evening is a challenge that can be overcome. Most households encounter this problem to at least some degree and can find a solution. Solar batteries, for example, can be used to store daytime electricity for use in the evenings.

Winter Energy Demands are a Problem in the UK

However, the increased demand for energy during the winter is a problem for solar panels that’s difficult to overcome.

  • To heat a house during the winter with electricity produced by solar panels, you’d need to build a vast solar system
  • During the summer months, this solar array would produce a huge amount of excess electricity
 

The problem is that this excess summer electricity would all be wasted and the investment needed to build such a large solar panel system would be substantial. In addition to this, it would also be an environmentally unfriendly thing to do. The solar panels you fit would largely be disused over their lifetime. It would be more environmentally friendly to use grid energy.

How Much Energy Do Houses Use in the Winter?

In the UK, energy demands are much higher for all households during the winter months. This is mainly because of the need for heating. However, energy use also increases for other reasons. More lighting is also needed, and people tend to stay inside more and use electrical household appliances.

Remember, not only is energy use higher, but solar energy production is also lower in the winter.

  • According to Ofgem, the average household uses 12000kWh of gas for heating and cooking each year
  • Electrical cooking and heating systems are more efficient, but will still use something like 6000 kWh per year.
  • The majority of this use will be confined to the winter months
 

To cope with this demand for solar panels, you would need to build a huge solar array that would be able to cope with a much larger demand at a time when it works much less efficiently.

For Off-Grid Living, You Need an Alternative to Solar

The upshot of all this is that it’s not feasible to live off the grid with solar power alone. Solar panels are great, but you need an alternative source of energy for the winter.

You don’t need to write off the idea of living off the grid. Off-grid living is possible, but it will take some effort to overcome the problem of the cold UK winter months.

Here are some figures on energy production for three popular alternative domestic sources of off-grid energy:

Energy SourceEnergy ProductionThings to Know
Wind PowerDomestic wind turbines typically have an annual output of 2 – 6kWhThey’re great, but you’re dependent on their being enough wind at the right times
FirewoodAround 15 megajoules per kg for hardwoodYou’ll need about 6m3 of hardwood for one wood burner per year. That’s about 2.4 tonnes.  
Biomass boilerscan be used to power boilers ranging from 15 – 56kW in outputTo work out how much fuel you’ll need, you can divide the output of your biomass boiler by four. A 30kW boiler will need 7.5 tonnes of fuel per year for £600 – £1120 in wood chips.

It’s worth pointing out that, in most cases, full off-grid living will mean moving to a suitable location. This lifestyle lends itself to rural locations where the storage of fuel and power-generating equipment is possible.  


If you’re still committed to the off-grid approach, check out this video here.

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What Should You Do?

For most people, the best thing is to keep it simple and settle for partial off-grid living with a normal solar panel system. Don’t forget that, even with a basic system, you’ll be over 50% off the grid in your electricity use. The electricity your solar panels produce will be completely free, and you’ll be able to use it for whatever you want without worrying too much about the cost.

One great step that solar panel owners can take is to make as much effort as possible to maximise their daytime electricity use.

If you’re able to use the electricity your solar panels produce directly from them as they produce it, then you’ll be using your solar energy as efficiently as possible. Your solar electricity will go straight into your domestic appliances, taking the place of expensive grid energy.

If you’re not able to do this, then the next best alternative is to use an additional piece of technology to help you out. As we mentioned earlier, the best things here are batteries and diverters.

Here’s what batteries and diverters do:

  • Batteries do what you can guess – they store the energy your solar panels produce during the day for use at a later time. Normally, they store energy during the day and then people use it when they come home in the evening
  • Diverters are slightly different – what diverters do is divert electricity away from the grid. Without a battery or a diverter, excess electricity is exported to the grid, and you receive money for it. Diverters send electricity into an appliance within the home (normally an immersion heater) instead

When you export electricity to the National Grid, you can be paid for it under the Smart Export Guarantee.

Note that you won’t get the Smart Export Guarantee if you’re living off the grid.

As such, people often assume that it’s fine to allow solar panels to produce excess electricity and then export it to the grid. You get paid for it, so it should all be okay, right?

Well, the problem is that what you get paid for exporting electricity to the grid is much less than what you pay for importing it from the grid. It seems unfair, but energy companies won’t pay you as much for the energy you produce as they’ll charge you for the energy they sell to you.

  • Typical rates for selling electricity are around 5 or 6 pence per kWh
  • The average cost of 1 kWh of electricity in 2022 was 34 pence

As annoying as this is, it just means you need to make as much use as possible of the electricity your solar panels produce during the daytime.

Here’s how much they cost

  • Diverters cost around £800
  • Batteries usually cost £3000 to £4000

 

Despite the fact the batteries cost significantly more than diverters, they’re more popular and are usually a better choice. Overall, they work more efficiently and allow for more complete use of excess daytime solar energy. Diverters are effective, but more electricity will be ‘lost’ to the grid with a diverter than it will with a batter. Over time, batteries are a better investment.

For general information about solar panels and planning permission, check out our article here.

Most of the time, for a roof-mounted solar panel system for domestic property in the UK, there’s no need to apply for planning permission. Things do change though when solar panel systems are built on the ground. And for off-grid living, you’ll probably end up needing to site at least some solar panels on the ground.

You’ll need planning permission if your solar panel system is over 9m2 in size and it’s built on the ground

You might well also need planning permission to install another alternative off-grid source of energy like windmills.

If you’re considering building extra solar panels for off-grid living, a key thing to know will be how long they’ll last.

Here’s the answer:

  • Most solar panel systems come with a 25-year warranty, meaning that you should get at least 25 years out of them
  • Solar panel systems often last longer than their warranty, surviving for 30 or even 40 years