Courtesy SkyFire Energy

Alternative power sources for off-the-grid acreage living

Alternative energy sources like wind and solar were once viewed as novel concepts that would never become practical for the average homeowner. Alternative energy sources like wind and solar were once viewed as novel concepts that would never become practical for the average homeowner. However, for many acreage owners and other rural residents, going off the grid – living in a self-sufficient manner without reliance on one or more public utilities – is catching on in a variety of forms.

“Rather than burning fossil fuels, geothermal systems use the earth as a heat exchanger,” said Koen van der Maaten, co-founder and president of Thermal Creek Ltd. in Calgary.

In the winter, the system – consisting of a ground loop, a geothermal heat pump and a distribution system – extracts energy from the ground to heat the home. In the summer, the system reverses and deposits heat from the house back into the ground to provide cooling.

As homeowners become more conscious of their environmental footprint, geothermal energy is one way to shrink it significantly.

“The energy we extract from the ground is renewable and comes from the sun,” said van der Maaten. “Every day, the earth’s crust absorbs 500 times more energy than what mankind consumes. Geothermal technology captures this energy to create a heating system that uses 80 per cent less energy than conventional heating systems.”

Before you can tap into that potential, however, you must overcome one significant hurdle: the cost. Installation for a home up to 4,000 square feet runs about $45,000, but that’s where the expense ends and the savings begin.“

“We are so married to conventional energy that we don’t give the newer technologies a chance, but they can work, and I’m living proof of that.” – Rory Whitbread, Lacombe-area acreage owner

Apart from eliminating monthly utility charges, you may avoid the cost of installing a natural gas line to your property,” said van der Maaten. “If you’re in an area that uses propane or oil heating, you should see a payback of your upfront costs in 3-4 years.”

Perhaps the best known alternative energy source, solar uses panels to convert the sun’s energy into direct current (DC) that flows to an inverter. The inverter converts the electricity from DC to alternating current, which you can then use to power your home.

Those choosing the solar route can opt for an off-grid or grid-tied system.

“An off-grid system is detached from the power company, and so it is meant to be entirely self-sustaining,” said David Kelly, founder & CEO of Calgary’s SkyFire Energy. “A grid-tied system, on the other hand, is still attached to the power grid, which kicks in if the panels are not able to produce enough power due to a number of environmental factors.”

While both approaches will reduce your environmental impact and your monthly energy costs, off-grid systems cost three to five times more to install, running anywhere from $50,000-$100,000, versus $5,500-$30,000 for a grid-tied system.“

Also, there are rebates through Energy Efficiency Alberta of $0.75/watt for those on a grid-tied system, which makes it even more attractive,” said Kelly.

Whether it’s solar, wind or geothermal, alternative energy users are still in the minority. Even so, the appeal of lower (or non-existent) monthly costs and eco-friendly energy is drawing some rural dwellers into the fold.

When the power company quoted him $8,000 to run a natural gas line to his new acreage near Lacombe, Rory Whitbread and his family put the money towards a geothermal system instead.

“Many people told us it would never work, and I must admit we were a bit scared at first,” he said. “But when we had excellent heat throughout the winter, even at -40 C, we became believers.”

Based on his experience, Whitbread hopes more Albertans follow suit.

“We are so married to conventional energy that we don’t give the newer technologies a chance, but they can work, and I’m living proof of that.”