Solar to Go A Mobile Solar Generator Makes Going Off-Grid a Little Easier

John and Victoria McBride fell in love with their 100-acre California ranch the minute they set eyes on it. The property, located in the hills of northern San Luis Obispo County’s wine country, had a stunning view overlooking Santa Margarita Lake. Signs of wildlife—eagles, mountain lions, bears, coyotes and foxes—were everywhere. There was even room for a corral big enough to hold their dozen or so horses. The land had everything they ever wanted—except electricity.

Undeterred by the hardships of rustic living, the McBride’s bought their dream property and set up a modest shelter where they could spend weekends taking family and friends on remote horseback adventures. Their power needs were met by a gas generator and a wood-burning stove. But after six years spent hauling gas fuel from a distant town, the relationship with their noisy, belching generator went sour. Alternative options were limited. The price tag for extending power lines a half mile up the road to their property was set at $50,000.

The McBride’s began to wonder if there were other off-grid solutions that could meet their power needs. During a trip to the county fair, they happened across a booth run by Travis Semmes, a young conservationist and solar entrepreneur. Semmes showed them his portable mobile solar trailer, a device born from an idea he had while working with his father, a contractor who builds solar homes. The McBrides and Semmes struck up a conversation that turned into a friendship. A few months later, Semmes drove one of his brand-new units onto the ranch—a trailer with batteries and inverter inside. He disconnected the McBride’s sputtering old diesel generator, flipped up the solar panels on the trailer, connected some wires to the house, and the McBrides began a new relationship with the sun.

Because the couple lives modestly, they have more than enough electricity to run their kitchen appliances, space heater, lights, stereo, computer and wide-screen television. A wood-burning stove gets them through the coldest nights of the year. Their gas generator has only been used once in two years.

Semmes’ company, Mobile Solar Power, provided the first maintenance lesson: filling the batteries with water once a month, cleaning the solar panels during the hot, dusty summer months and equalizing the batteries twice a year. Semmes says the upkeep is relatively simple, but it’s not for everyone. “If you don’t remember to put air in your tires or add oil to an engine,” he says, “you probably shouldn’t buy one of our units.”

John McBride estimates it will take about a decade to recover his costs. In 15 years, it will be time to think about replacing the large 24-volt, 1,640-amp-hour battery bank, at a cost of roughly $7,000.

“We don’t mind a rustic life; it allows us not to be dependent on anyone,” he says. “I highly recommend the solar generator for anyone who lives out in the middle of nowhere. If we ever move, we can take the unit with us. We wanted to go solar because we like peace and quiet. And when everyone in town is losing their power in storms, we don”t.”

Greg and Sharon Dietel are another Central Coast California couple living off-grid with a solar-powered generator. Sharon is an animal lover with a slew of horses, dogs, rabbits, chickens and goats. Greg is an amateur viticulturalist whose vineyard is in its fourth leaf. Between the two pastimes, they use a considerable amount of water. The electrical pump consumes about one-third of all the power they produce. A timer runs the pump at midday when the system produces the most power.

Greg, a mechanical and industrial engineer, keeps a close eye on the family’s energy consumption. A meter installed in the living room tracks their daily usage. “You need a full year to really study your land; you have to go through a winter to see what your peak usage will be and then balance things out through the year,” he says. “Most of the year I am literally looking for ways to use up the energy we produce. But during the stormy months, we need a backup, so we use a fireplace to supplement our needs.”

When going off-grid, experts advise using more than one source of alternative energy—wind, hydro, wood or gas generators. The Dietel’s main backup is a diesel generator but they are considering a switch to wind power. The electricity produced by the wind generator would be stored in the batteries of the solar system.

“From time to time we use a gas generator as backup,” Greg says. “I spend about $250 a year on fuel. But we also have wind on the ranch. I sit on my deck every afternoon and watch winds come up—that’s free power. It’s particularly strong in the late afternoon and during the colder winter months when there’s considerable cloud cover.”

When first considering his options, Greg looked into hiring a contractor to install a solar generator system in an enclosed shed with a concrete floor next to the house. But the bids were high (including the cost of travel to reach their remote location) and, unlike the mobile units, a permit was required to do the work.

“You need to enclose the batteries and converter in a place that’s free from dust and rodents,” he says. “[But] the trailer is solid. It also provides a place to mount the batteries on top.”

When asked if her friends like the idea of going off-grid with a solar generator, Sharon says, “It’s a little too scary for some of them. I think they aren’t really interested in making lifestyle changes. But it’s not that difficult if you just pay attention.”