Off grid electric power

Electric power has become an essential part of daily life throughout the past century. It is required for running most household appliances, from washing machines to lighting. For most households it’s also the one whose loss is felt instantaneously and with the biggest impact upon interruption of the grid. These two factors lead to a high priority for increasing its off-grid endurance.


There are numerous possibilities for designing a power system to suit these requirements. The most basic one would be to store electric power supplied by the grid in batteries. The most widely used type for this are lead-acid deep cycle batteries, mostly sold in the absorbent glass mat (AGM) variant. They cost about 15 cents per Watt-hour at present, but can only be discharged to 50% to keep functioning without much capacity loss for a few hundred cycles. So it’s effectively 30 cents/Wh. They usually supply 12V DC power, which has to be converted to AC with an inverter to be useful for AC based equipment (which most household appliances are). Their capacity can only be fully utilized when discharged slowly within a day, so one would need 2.4kWh to run a constant 100W (enough for a laptop and some power saving light bulbs) for a day. This translates to a cost of $720 for the batteries.
An emerging alternative technology is the lithium iron phosphate (LiFePo4) type, which can be discharged several times faster without capacity loss and lasts for about 5 times as many cycles, but its initial cost is higher at about 80 cents/Wh. See this comparison between the two and a load calculator here.
Increasing demand for batteries coming from the auto industry will likely lead to further development, decreasing cost and increasing performance of new types. Notable current developments are Tesla’s Gigafactory, which holds the promise of a lower cost, albeit this kind of development in production done in one big factory runs counter to the other important goal of being able to create and refurbish batteries locally. Another interesting recent development is the entry of the LiS (lithium sulfur) type, which has a much higher theoretical energy density compared to LiFePo4.


Another way to store energy are generators. These also come in several varieties. Easiest to find are gasoline fueled, which cost under $300 for a 1kW type and provide AC power. Their main obvious drawback is their dependency on fossil fuels, using about 0.7 l per hour for 1kW electric power. Propane fueled generators are also available, which are practical for mobile homes or boats, as they use the same fuel as small heaters and propane refrigerators.
More eco friendly would be to run a generator on ethanol, but most gasoline types sold don’t seem to be equipped for that. Then there is also the possibility to use a Stirling Engine, which can be driven by anything, from concentrated solar heat to burning wood. Its main drawback is its bulky size, which makes it difficult to use for mobile settings.
All generators can be used to load batteries, which makes sense when high levels of power are not constantly needed and other alternatives are not available, such as with a solar cell/battery combination in the winter.

Solar Cells

Stored power has to come from somewhere and if that somewhere is the grid or not locally available fuel, then the level of off-grid endurance will always be limited. Fortunately there are a few contraptions that can produce primary electric power from widely available and freely accessible sources. Solar cells should be mentioned first in this category, them being quiet, possible to operate without moving parts and using the same resource most of life on Earth depends on: the Sun.
There are 3 different types of solar power to be mentioned here. Most flexibly to use are thin film cells. These are light weight and can be bent without damaging the cells. Their main drawback is a smaller efficiency (around 10%) in converting sunlight compared to the approximately 20% of the heavier and inflexible second type, crystalline cells.
The third type to mention are concentrator mirror based solutions. There can be a Stirling Engine in the focal point of these mirrors (spherical, parabolic and Fresnel types exist, both in linear and radial forms). This configuration would create mechanical motion, which can be converted to AC electricity with a generator. As an alternativele highly efficient, heat resistant or cooled solar cells can be placed into the focal point of the mirror, which improves efficiency at the possible cost of shorter cell life due to increased radiation.
The cost of solar cells has been dropping steadily since their invention and is now becoming cost competitive with big industrial methods based on fossil fuels, nuclear power or hydroelectric dams

Wind and Water Turbines

Wind turbines are another possibility for harnessing another power source that mixes well with solar, as there can be wind when the Sun is not shining and vice versa. A wind turbine is generally a less mobile solution, as it needs a supporting structure. But small wind power generators do exist even for small boats, so they don’t entirely have to be fixed to a location either. They also tend to be cheaper compared to solar on a per Watt basis, although solar cell prices have decreased rapidly in the past few years, meaning the difference is smaller than it used to be.
Lastly to be mentioned are flow-water turbines, which can also be quite small scale, used to extract mechanical power from running water sources, such as creeks, rivers, etc. Main drawback is obviously the need to be next to such a source, but when it’s present, this is an easy and affordable way to generate considerable and relatively constant power.

Organizations in the DIY Ecosystem

How do we get to a future in which everyone has guaranteed access to all means of production necessary for a good quality life? What is happening at this moment towards this goal and who is doing it? How can one get involved? Read below to find some of the answers to these questions.

Wikipedia is probably the oldest large, global collaborative project to share all sorts of information on the Internet. It contains vast amounts of well referenced articles on almost every imaginable topic. Highly recommended for looking up theoretical basics of any project, or just to read and learn and be amazed.

Open Source Ecology is a site about setting up a self-sustaining living space on a farm. Founded my Marcin Jakubowski, it has been in development for several years now. Their main areas of focus are various farming equipment and a brick press to create food and building materials from locally available materials. All plans are open source, manufacturing designed to be easily repeatable all around the world.

While it mainly deals with mass produced goods at present, ebay is an important source for all sorts of components that would be more difficult or expensive to acquire from other sources. It will likely also play an increasingly important role in selling custom designed products.

GithubThis is a well known website mainly – but not only – focused on open source software projects. Some of the code is provided as part of hardware projects, such as home assistant for home automatization or ArduPilot for DIY drones and countless others.

Instructables and Hackaday are both websites dedicated to provide step-by-step intstructions and list of parts for making DIY gadgets. Two examples would be the Acoustic Tractor Beam and an Arduino based solar charge controller, but again there are many others.

Thingiverseis the currently largest platform for sharing blueprints for 3D printers.

All of these organizations have a role to play in bringing about the afore mentioned desirable future. Some are only suited for certain lifestyles, whereas others are useful for everybody. Generally pure information is more broadly usable, but hardware is necessary to make a change in the real world. Within hardware small is beautiful. The smaller a gadget, the easier it is to keep in densely populated locations or to move around. Also important is how easily accessible its containing parts are. All these mentioned websites are great starting points to effect change for a person wanting to become involved in this developing technological movement.

DIY Blueprints – the overall picture

Why DIY?

We live in a time when separation between production and consumption of goods is unprecedented. Food is grown by large, industrial style companies using expensive machinery in need of a global trade network to produce their parts and propellants.

Among others, there are two effects resulting from this reality that should be considered:

  1. Increased inequality. It has become exceedingly difficult to live independently of these networks. Due to the increased capital investment required to create vital products, the barriers to survival as an independent producer of these has also diminished. At the same time, increasing automation also decreases the bargaining power of dependent workers. While new opportunities in publishing and marketing have opened up through the Internet, empowering savvy individuals, the overall tendency is concentration of wealth and control in the hands of a few.

  2. Vulnerability of everyone should the network collapse. Local production would have to be rapidly developed in this case in an ad-hoc fashion. There would be massive shortages of all kinds of supplies in the meantime. It would also result in a marked technological regression, as vital parts – especially state of the art electronics – can not be produced on a small scale with present technology.
The goal of DIY Blueprints is to be a part of the process to create solutions for these problems before they become acute. The guiding philosophy is decentralization of production combined with building networks to globally share information, especially regarding the blueprints for desktop-sized production. Looking at the present, favorable developments towards these goals include the emergence of 3D printers and of micro-computers and micro-controllers. Also notable is the decrease in cost of solar cells and batteries for off-grid power supply. DIY Blueprints will focus on combining micro-computers with off-grid power systems for the time being.

Which products and services should be prioritized?

A more detailed look at specific products or services (PoS) needed in everyday life reveals differing levels of how essential these are. Take the scale of how long a PoS will keep functioning while not connected to any supply grid for instance. Electric machinery will instantly stop when power is cut. So, given the multitude of gadgets this affects, increasing this off-grid endurance time of electric power supply seems to be of high priority. Many options exist to do this, ranging from batteries storing energy supplied by the electric grid or solar cells or local wind turbines to hydrocarbon driven generators.
At the other end of the scale are long life products such as housing, which provide shelter for decades without repair or a connection to a grid, even though this is without the built in comforts of flowing water, electricity etc.
So it seems sensible to give highest priority to increasing endurance of the PoS with the lowest initial endurance. But other factors also have to be considered. Also important is how essential a PoS is for living. It’s possible to live entirely without access to electric power, but obviously food and water are a different matter.

Another issue to evaluate additionally to these two is the required investment in time and resources to create that increased endurance. Take water as an example. It is usually needed several times a day for cleaning and cooking and is essential for survival at a duration of a few days. In many environments water is readily available, just not clean. Simple filters and boiling can convert it to be safe to drink. But what if the water source is far away or only available at certain times? Storage becomes more important in this case, with all the difficulties of keeping the storage tanks clean for long-term use and hauling this mass around. Closing the loop to recycle created waste water directly is possible to some degree, but considerably more difficult to achieve, as can be seen with the water reclamation system used on the International Space Station. Even that system can recycle only about 70% of waste water in one pass.


Creating the conditions for living independently of mainstream resource networks, while at the same time maintaining a modern technological lifestyle will require developing a multitude of tools and techniques in several areas. The process will certainly be a gradual and slow one, with many intermediate steps of partial independence. It will face resistance from all those parts of society in positions of control and whose power over others would be reduced by removal of the incentive of taking part in the system in order to live.
For these reasons, key areas to progress would seem to be physical mobility, to be able to relocate to areas with communities also interested in these same goals. Information about these places and all the techniques for off-grid living will have to be accessible as widely as possible through the use of decentralized global networks. Also important is for the PoS to be as small-scale as possible to enable their use in the widest range of environments and setups.
It is difficult to see how all this will turn out in the end, but the technologies are coming together to make this development possible. The outcome will depend on the many choices each of us makes along the way.