Going On-Grid and Why We Did

by Beth

Homesteading is frequently associated with living off-grid, but living truly off the grid can mean big cash or lifestyle changes. Maybe we’re a couple of softcore or moderate homesteaders, but the choice to take our raw land on-grid ended up being an easy one.

Here are the reasons we decided to connect to the power grid and how we did it.

choosing power line route
Winter (pre-power poles) and now

Background
Before we made an offer on our land, which was 1/4 mile from the nearest powerline at the time, we met with a representative from the utility company to see what it would cost to get power there.

We immediately “connected” (grid pun) with the power guy, who ended up being a local friend full of sage advice about settling rocky Tennessee mountain land land like ours. His counsel has pointed us in helpful directions ever since. Not to mention that he lets us borrow tools and gave us tough love on the state of our driveway, which has now been professionally graded, crowned, tiled, and graveled. So there. But I digress.

utility company measuring wheelPower Guy has walked our land a dozen times since last fall, rolling his little measuring wheel. He’s priced connection options, advocated for us with neighbors, and meticulously identified trees and branches for clearance.

Why We’re Going On-Grid
Having a benevolent grid Svengali like Power Guy made going on-grid feel like the path of least resistance, and we do like going with the flow. But even as we began consulting with Power Guy, we were researching what it would take to be fully off-grid. After all, we’ll have a well and septic, so we’re 2/3 free of public utilities. Why not go all the way?

Two reasons: cost and lifestyle.

Currently, a solar setup to cover our US-citizen-standard power consumption, plus ongoing maintenance and battery replacement, would cost the same as over 30 years of above-average grid-electric bills. Factor in the energy efficiency of the dome and plans to lower electricity usage with at least a woodstove and Bernoulli’s principal, and we’d never be flush.

Meanwhile, the utility company offers a $3K connection-fee credit and 10 years of no-interest financing on the remainder. Add $200 for inspections and $415 for an electric-box setup (we’ll save a few hundred by installing the box on the pole ourselves), and going on grid ended up being under $5K out of pocket.

Cost-wise, grid-electric beats solar all day long. Of course, there are other reasons to be grid-free, like a sense of freedom. Even the word “grid” sounds like a snare, and any self-respecting homesteader will take issue with that.

While the notion of being severed from the public grid is romantic and awesome (let the grid go down, lawd), with current prices, we’d be tethered to a solar provider forever via debt and maintenance.

solar setup on a hillside
Messy Smokies solar setup at Hemphill Bald

Enter, lifestyle: We wouldn’t need that 6-figure solar setup if we decided to, say, use a generator sometimes and not have power some nights or shady days. If we ran fewer electronics, worried less about climate control, didn’t have elaborate fish tanks that need electricity to maintain their delicate chemistry, or didn’t care if all of our guests could have hot showers, our approach would be different.

Homesteaders typically want to trade cash-reliance and modern conveniences for sweat equity and a deeper connection with nature. Our philosophy is a moderate version of that. We don’t see ourselves shifting radically from modern conveniences in the near future.

There are many alternative power options to suit a fractional, on-grid approach to sustainable living. Partial solar arrays are more affordable and can help reduce grid-power consumption by “reversing the meter,” sending watts back to the grid when the sun makes you more than you need.

We’re hoping to go with a geothermal HVAC but will know more after more research. Wind is probably out because of how sheltered our big hill is.

TIPThe owner-builder of a partially solar dome in Vermont has extensive experience with solar and domes, so if you’re on a journey at all similar to ours, you could contact him or even take a dome-cation to Vermont.

How We Went On Grid
We contacted the local utility company to have a representative (Power Guy) assess the land and apprise us of options, including whether to go above or below ground and which nearby powerlines we could connect to.

Above vs. Below Ground: Below-ground powerlines have the reputation for being aesthetically nicer and more reliable, since downed trees can’t take out underground wires. Cons are a higher price per foot and expensive excavation that we hear is tricky to do yourself, especially in rocky soil.

Underground lines require a box every 400′, so they’re technically not invisible. And since they’re connected to the grid and its network of above-ground lines, reliability only goes as far as the lines are underground. If a tree falls on your neighbor’s above-ground line, your power will still be out.

On the other hand, cheaper above-ground power means the eradication of a 30′ swath of beautiful trees “to the heavens,” along with treasured quiet and privacy.

new road with trees saved
Saving trees, y’all

When Power Guy saw our anxiety over the trees, he offered option #3, above-ground with Hendrix line, and we took it. At +$1/foot, this high-tension wire reduces tree removal by a whopping 14′ width and allows for fewer poles. Having to clear only a 16′ corridor meant saving dozens of oaks, hackberries, mulberries, persimmons, gum, poplars, sycamores, black locusts, and giant cedars.

Of the few mature trees we did clear, many were already dead because of the kudzu. We’ll hopefully be able to mill the viable trees we took and use them as lumber, though we’re still a little stumped by the milling process.

By the way, the utility guys and contractors we’ve auditioned have praised us for saving trees, which makes us feel pretty connected to folks out here.

As we were making this decision, the neighbors on our right-of-way hooked up their above-ground power. We realized how little we noticed the poles and knew for sure that going above ground was the right call.

new power lines in spring
Above-ground power: more subtle than you’d think

Finding the Best Powerline to Connect To: If you’re landlocked like us, and if you’ve read about what to know before you make an offer, you’ll know it’s important that your deed includes the right to run utilities up your right-of-way, in case you have no other options.

When we wrote that contingency into our won offer, we weren’t planning to use the right-of-way for power. Power Guy was of the strong opinion our neighbor to the north was our best connection option. If said neighbor was amenable to a line running across 100′ of his property (a non-buildable wedge of land on the side of a mountain), we could save something like $10K on the overall project. The line would run up his hill and underground about 300′ to our build-site.

It was a good idea in theory. As we suffered through months of awkward encounters with our northern neighbors – who had no interest in kindness or our financial well-being; fair enough – 3 important facts came to light.

  1. Being indebted to our northern neighbors seemed unwise. In fact, they’re perfect country neighbors if you don’t need anything from them. Quiet, and they like their pristine land buffer as much as we do.
  2. Our field is very rocky, so excavating 4′ down for 300′ was going to put a wallop on our budget.
  3. Our neighbors along the right-of-way decided to go on-grid.

We hadn’t been sure those neighbors planned to go on-grid. When they did, they brought lines nearly as near as our northern neighbors’ and let us choose a new powerline route. Suddenly, everything clicked.

grid of grid choices
Be patient, and choose connections wisely

The new plan let us combine the cost of our driveway (which Power Guy said we needed first & foremost for the utility company to approve installation – they like to have adequate egress to their poles) with any remaining cost to clear the way for power, a huge win.

Now the lines could run above ground without cutting into views or usable space, saving serious coin on that excavation for underground lines. Using the high-tension wire meant tree removal was greatly reduced. Though it was still a huge job, Chris was able to handle the bulk of it with me as his tractor-driving helper.

TIPJust because you can doesn’t mean you should. Our deed legally allowed us to run power along our right-of-way, which is someone else’s land, so we ran our plans past the landowners first. We care that our neighbors like the changes we’re making to land that’s been in their family for over a century. We also checked if they wanted any of the trees we removed from their land. A right-of-way is a funny thing. You can have usage rights, but the land and its features ultimately belong to the owner.

excavator building driveway

This plan meant sharing 1/2 of our right-of-way neighbors’ new-power connection fee, which did them a solid and incentivized them to move forward. On the spring equinox, the neighbor’s new powerlines appeared, and we were ready to finish the last of the tree removal, a job we could do ourselves, and have the excavator build our road. Read more about the driveway build in this post about the real costs of settling land.

cropped-dsc05468.jpg

With the driveway in, neighbors happy, and powerline route planned, the Power Guy came out a few more times to make sure all the necessary trees and branches were out of the way.

extendable stick saw
A saw on a stick is a terrible thing

Chris now has not only a high level of expertise in tree clearance but in chainsaw repair and blade sharpening. He did awesome work with our trees, down to saving our 2nd biggest mulberry by using a ridiculous saw on a stick (loaned to us by Power Guy) to remove a last pesky branch.

The Shake Weight has nothing on a saw-on-a-stick workout. It’s a shoulder burner.

When Power Guy gave us the nod, it was time to cart the septic permit and 9-1-1 documentation (which we had picked up back in December not long after closing) to the utility company, pay inspection fees, and sign off on our connection fee. The utility company gave us detailed instructions for installing the power box. The local hardware store is preparing the assembly for us, with a plug-in for our builders to use.

As of this weekend, all of our poles are in. After they string the wires next week, we’ll wait for the evening cool to set in around 8 and go over to install the power box assembly. After a final inspection by Power Guy, the switch will be flipped. We’ll be powered up and ready for more next steps: pole-barn installation, dome-layout finalization, and decisions about foundation materials, general contractors, septic, well, and geothermal HVAC.

Maybe we’ll go off-grid when technology and our philosophies evolve. For now, going on-grid has been a ton of work and a major milestone for Freestone, as we enter month #8 of this electrifying homestead adventure.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Really enjoyed stumbling upon your blog and reading a bunch of your posts as you embark on this adventure. Particularly looking forward to hearing what you find out about geothermal, as we are looking to buy a piece of land and build our own home and one of the sustainable builders that we’re talking to said that doing a geothermal is a much better overall investment compared to solar since we’re not in an area with a ton of sun all year round.

    Like

    1. Beth says:

      Thanks! We’re at the beginning of our research on Geothermal but have heard great things. We’re planning to meet with contractors in the next couple weeks to learn more. We have a ton of sun in our area, but solar still doesn’t add up for us yet. One day, hopefully!

      Like

      1. I just learned the federal government let the geothermal energy tax credits expire at the end of 2016, and here in Oregon are expiring at the end of 2017…such a bummer!

        Like

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