Many homeowners may have given up and bought another home when faced with the hassle of landowner Derrick Zearley. Instead, he looked to solar + storage to avoid interconnection altogether.
Zearley bought land on the border of two utility areas in Anderson County, South Carolina: Duke Energy and its energy cooperative Blue Ridge Electric. That led to a switching back and forth between Duke and Blue Ridge to determine whose territory it actually was. When Duke Energy made a claim to the plot, the next step in the process was to obtain signed petitions from Zearley’s neighbors to give priority to their properties to run electricity to the site.
But after distributing the petitions, no neighbors signed. With half a year lost to the utilities and reluctant neighbors, Zearley reached out to Palmetto State Solar (now Firefly Solar), an installer based in Greenville, and pitched the idea of an off-grid solar system to build before and alongside, a 5,500-square-foot building in a non-electrified remote South Carolina location.
“I’m a bit of a cowboy, so I was interested in the challenge and the kind of being able to give the tools the middle finger after they gave us the round,” Zearley said.
If you are staying in a remote location like this, there are usually additional energy conservation requirements, such as limiting household electricity consumption to when solar panels receive the most sunlight. But Zearley didn’t want an off-grid home with energy constraints. He wanted to build an entire house with an attached workshop that operated electrically on his own terms, with power after sundown – not a cabin or trailer that relied on a few measly kilowatts of solar power.
Raising a solar shed
Firefly Solar did not have much experience with off-grid projects before that.
“We get calls from time to time from people looking to go off-grid, but for the most part it’s not feasible, especially from a financial standpoint,” said Aaron Davis, owner and president of Firefly Solar. “So when Derrick called, I went out to visit him and threw out some rough figures of what he would expect, and he was willing to respond, especially because of the difficulties he had with the utility companies.”
Zearley’s home is on a 27-acre estate, of which about six acres is an open garden. The building he was looking for was a pre-designed steel structure with a single pitched roof in a color inspired by red barns from farming communities. Zearley compared it to “barndominiums”, which are similarly machined structures known for their ease of construction through prefabrication and energy efficiency.
Firefly was willing to carry out the project and Zearley was willing to put down the money, and the plan was to power solar + storage technologies in the first place.
“I think it piqued my interest when I heard that he thought the technology was available, but no one in our area has actually done it yet, so there wasn’t really anything to mimic, to design after” , said Zearley. “It was an interesting challenge, I think, for both of us to figure out how to do this. Once we started down this road, I told the energy companies that we no longer needed them. “
To take the site off the grid, Firefly Solar installed a 19.5 kW solar + storage system made from 60 Panasonic 325-W modules, 60 Enphase IQ 7X microinverters, IronRidge XR100 racks with S-5! ProteaBracket metal roof mounts and four Tesla Powerwall 2 batteries. And just in case solar doesn’t cover it, a 20 kW Kohler gas backup generator was also installed.
Firefly was lucky because when Davis contacted Tesla about the project, the company was just starting an off-grid program. Previously, Tesla’s storage hardware warranty language did not cover off-grid applications. Just when the Powerwalls were being installed, Tesla rewrote the company code to make the hardware work in this application.
“Derrick approached this with a kind of ‘no-compromise’ attitude and what he wanted was basically a house that was off-grid, but didn’t seem like it was off-grid,” said Firefly Solar’s Ryan Wagler, who was the design. project manager on this project. “Typically, with off-grid you’re talking about, ‘Okay, we have to limit your usage and we have to install LEDs everywhere.’ We really went for it and installed the capacity to handle the day-to-day use of a home of this size, which was new to me. ”
The building’s roof is more angularly angled than typical pitched roofs, but the surface allowed the 60 modules to be completely hidden from ground-level observers. The panels are mounted flat on the roof and the system is slightly too large to compensate for the angle, using Panasonic 96-cell modules, hardware that Firefly has used extensively.
“In the midst of all the uncertainty, we felt we needed some products that we could trust,” Wagler said.
Beyond the challenges of installing solar with new construction on an off-grid site, Firefly also partnered with several other companies. Davis said there were seven different contractors on site at one point. Since there was no electricity on site yet, everyone ran on gas generators. That is, until the solar power was installed, all companies could run their equipment without generators.
Retrofitting a home without a power supply usually involves the added challenge of compensating for the shutdown of existing electrical appliances and equipment with high energy consumption. Heating and cooling systems, well pumps and other necessary house loads require a lot of power at start-up.
In Zearley’s case, in new construction, it was possible to make sure that every major electrical load used a soft starter for less starting voltage, as every construction trade was present at the same time.
Now, in an effort to get the electrician, the HVAC guy, to get these different components of the structure together, because they had absolutely never dealt with anything like this before. It was a bit of a challenge, ”said Zearley.
Still, Firefly contractors were able to make sure everything from the well pump to garage door openers were on soft starters when they were brought in.
“The opportunities outweigh the challenges in this case because we were able to build in exactly what we needed for the system,” Wagler said. “If you can have some input on how those things are chosen, you can really make a big difference in how the system works and how it functions later.”
An off-grid home and workshop with no energy compromises
Zearley ended up at the house he and his wife were hoping for. Two-foot-tall glass windows face the wooded grounds and meet a concrete floor to match the kitchen countertops.
The roofline extends past the structure creating a covered porch. The windows open the garage door jamb to bring the outside in when the weather is nice. The shop, or as Zearley described it, his ‘man cave’, is open air and part of the house protrudes into the building, creating a mezzanine where they can see into the space.
And solar power powers it all, with energy storage that keeps it running after sundown.
“It’s just a nice feeling to be in the house and to know that you are responsible for generating your own energy,” said Zearely.
Projects such as these show that solar + storage technologies can be a viable, consistent energy source, even in larger applications.
“I think the microgrids and small communities of distributed energy will all come together,” said Davis. “There will be a lot more control as this evolves, and a lot more people will break from monopolistic utilities. I think a lot of this depends on the research and development that goes into storage in the coming years. ”