Energy options for resilient and off-grid homes
Learn how to talk to your clients about solar power, batteries, and standby generators in areas with unreliable power.
Sign Up for News Updates
The Big Sur Residence is located on a truly special piece of land.
Located on the border between Carmel and Big Sur on the coast of California, the 116-acre property combines three parcels purchased from The Nature Conservancy bordering hundreds of miles of trails into the Ventana Wilderness. It feels remote despite being located relatively close to civilization, says Mary Ann Schicketanz, the home’s architect and founder and principal architect of Studio Schicketanz in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. “Within 15 minutes, you are in a store,” she says. “But you would never know it when you’re here on site. It has 180-degree ocean views. And we have a dark sky ordinance, so the stars are amazing at night.”
Built by a young family from Silicon Valley’s tech industry, it’s an extreme but illustrative example of the type of locations where Schicketanz’s clients like to escape from their hectic lives, relaxed and surrounded by nature. But like many of those projects, bringing electric power to the site was a costly and difficult process. In our latest video, Schicketanz and energy consultant David Knight discuss why a combination of solar panels, batteries, and a propane standby generator is often the optimal approach to achieve resilience in these beautiful but remote locations.
“Getting power to remote sites is getting more and more difficult,” Schicketanz says. For one recent project on a site in Carmel Valley, just 10 minutes from the village, “PG&E told us it could be 3–7 years until we get power — if they decide to serve us. On a site like this, you don’t have any choice. It’s propane and solar power. Otherwise, you can forget building there.”
Schicketanz had a similar experience at the Big Sur Residence. While there was power at the property line, the home is half a mile away, so the power extension was still costly. And although the firm applied for the extension three years ago, the work still wasn’t completed with just a month before move-in. Part of the reason for the cost, she explains, is that most municipalities now require power lines be underground. While that’s sensible from a safety and aesthetics perspective, it can send costs soaring for extensions that run for multiple miles.
“We have had projects where that runs $200-, $300-, $400,000,” she says. “On the [Carmel Valley] project we were just looking into, it would run into the millions because it’s so far away.”
In scenarios without grid power or natural gas, a combination of solar power and propane power generation offers the most resilient solution, Schicketanz says. “If you only have solar, you have a finite number of days that you can operate. If you have that additional backup of the generator, if you don’t have the grid, then it just gives you more resilience.”
Knight has seen similar market forces at play in the nearly 1,000 custom homes he works on each year. In addition to financial challenges associated with wildfires in recent years, California utilities are earning less revenue from each new customer. “Because chances are, they’re building a real efficient house, and they’re going to have enough solar to cover all of their electric usages,” says Knight, founder of Monterey Energy Group. “And so now, the utility basically figures out what you would have spent over 30 years and says, ‘I’m going to charge you that up front.’”
Rather than spending exorbitant sums to bring in grid power, some homeowners will increasingly turn to the possibility of going off the grid with a combination of solar power, batteries, and a propane or gas generator, Knight predicts. “If you’re going to be charged $50,000 to hook up to the grid, that’s a lot of solar and batteries and backup generation,” Knight says.
In those scenarios, specifying propane for space heating, domestic hot water, and cooking helps to reduce electrical demand, making the upfront costs much more practical. “When you’re off-grid, it’s really, really expensive if you try to do everything electric,” Knight says. “Your solar system gets two or three times bigger, your batteries get bigger, your backup generation gets bigger — everything becomes significantly more expensive.” Propane provides an on-site source of power that can make homes energy independent at a more affordable cost.
“When you’re off-grid, it’s really, really expensive if you try to do everything electric.”
Having the resilience conversation
While such true off-grid scenarios are still rare, Schicketanz and Knight frequently design systems with solar panels, battery storage, and a propane standby generator even if power is available, because the power grid in remote areas is unreliable. “We are out of power every winter,” Schicketanz says. “And if you’re lucky, it’s just a day or two. But we’ve had weeks without power in Big Sur. We live in a remote area. It’s very important that you have backup.” PG&E’s public safety power outages, instituted to reduce wildfire risk, make summer outages a concern as well, she adds.
Knight says, “I don’t think I’ve worked on a home this year where they didn’t talk about having a backup generator, or batteries, or backup generator and batteries. It’s probably the fastest-growing trend — having an independent source of electricity for your house.”
In deciding whether batteries are a sufficient backup option, Knight educates the owners about what they can expect to use in an outage. “And it’s usually refrigeration, communication, a few lights, and that’s about it,” he says. “It’s really hard to do everything off batteries — space heating and domestic hot water, that sort of stuff. It would be very, very expensive. That’s where a good propane generator comes in.”
That’s particularly true on the types of luxury custom projects Schicketanz typically designs. Not only would clients relying on batteries alone have to limit the use of appliances such as microwaves, hair dryers, and electric ovens, but the automated functions of the home might also be affected. “For efficiency, all of our heating systems are timed,” she says. “Our shade control is timed. Our lights are timed. For all of that, it’s really important that you have an automatic transfer to an alternate source of power.”
“If you’re in a remote location and you want to be sure that all your equipment is running and that when you go there, you can enjoy your home, you want to have backup,” Schicketanz says. “And for that resilience, I think you don’t want to just rely on your battery storage. For that, your propane backup will be really beneficial.”