A log cabin in the snowy mountains, powered by remote solar panels

Summary

  • Many Canadians who live in off-grid locations rely on solar energy to power their remote lifestyle. For instance, there are approximately 200,000 people living off-grid within 280 communities across Canada. As solar energy systems grow in demand, they become more affordable and attractive to people who desire to live off-grid.
  • Remote living is made easier with solar power, especially as it becomes a more accessible and economical choice. As far as clean energy in Canada is concerned, 67% of generated electricity comes from renewable sources.
  • Solar power harnesses the vibrant energy from the sun and converts it into electricity that can be used to power homes, businesses and communities. By installing a solar storage system, you can store the electricity for use during the night or in conditions when your panels aren’t generating as much power.
  • Remote solar panels are making a significant impact globally, from solar farms in the Egyptian desert and the Australian outback to solar mini-grids supporting rural African communities.

Introduction

When you think of solar panels, you might be picturing quaint suburban houses with large fixtures mounted to the rooftops. However, solar panels have been supporting many ‘off-gridders’ globally for some time. In fact, with solar energy, living in a remote location doesn’t mean you have to compromise on power. With the help of a solar battery, you can store the energy that you need to power your home day and night.

In this article, we will address some popular questions about remote solar energy projects. Can solar panels support remote living? Can renewable energy be stored for later? Why do so many people believe that solar is the best option for remote areas?

What Does it Mean to Live Off-Grid?

There are 280 off-grid communities in Canada which are home to approximately 200,000 people.

Traditionally, living off-grid means you don’t connect your home to the country’s national power grid. Alongside generating independent electricity – usually through solar panels – someone living off the grid might grow their own food and even have livestock. It’s important to follow various national building codes to ensure your remote living situation is legal, such as having proper ventilation and smoke detectors in your home. This self-sufficient way of living is particularly desirable in vast territories such as Canada and the USA. In fact, there are 280 off-grid communities in Canada, home to approximately 200,000 people.

At this point, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder: Can solar technology support remote living? As it happens, solar panels are an eco-friendly way to generate power for your home and business. By harnessing the sun’s light, a solar panel (also known as a PV cell) can work in a diverse range of locations – from built-up cities to the most rural places on earth. Beyond our atmosphere, there are also operational solar panels in orbit that help to power various space crafts. In the next section, we will summarise how solar power works, what you need to consider before going remote, and some of the challenges you may face along the way.

How Does Solar Energy Work?

Active solar methods include using advanced technology to convert the sun’s energy into a secondary source, such as electricity.

People have been utilising the sun’s energy for centuries to light and heat rooms, start fires and even power boats. However, the first solar panel didn’t get invented until 1954. When it comes to appropriating solar energy, we call these methods passive. For instance, using a window to let the sun heat and light up a room is a passive solar method. In comparison, active solar methods include using advanced technology to convert the sun’s energy into a secondary source, such as electricity.

A solar array (i.e. a collection of solar panels) works by capturing sunlight through photovoltaic (PV) cells, which are manufactured using a semiconductor such as silicon. This thin material directs the electrons so that as light hits the surface of the PV cells, the electrons move to create an electrical current. A PV panel’s electricity is a direct current (DC), whereas standard household power is an alternating current (AC). Therefore, an inverter is also installed with the solar power system to turn the sun’s energy into a resource that’s ready to use. Solar arrays are a reliable source of energy because sunlight is a replenishable and natural source. If you’re considering investing in solar power for your home, the number of panels you need will depend on your household electricity usage.

An infographic depicting how solar panels generate electricity and power home appliances

Can We Store Renewable Energy for Later Use?

Incorporating a solar storage system is the key to optimising solar power in rural areas. Unlike inner-city homes, remote homes can’t switch to grid power when solar panels aren’t generating electricity.

It’s a common mistake to assume solar panels don’t work in winter. In reality, solar panels are incredibly robust and effective systems and can even generate electricity when it’s cloudy. During the colder months, the amount of power your photovoltaic cell generates will likely decrease. However, it won’t grind to a halt. The primary time a solar panel won’t generate electricity is at night (when the sun has set). But, this is where solar storage comes in.

Lithium-ion batteries (also known as li-ion) are essentially rechargeable batteries. Typically, these storage units are used for portable devices such as phones, tablets and electric vehicles, although they are increasingly used as a way to store solar power. There are some concerns that these reusable batteries may be dangerous in some contexts due to the fact that a thin polypropylene strip is the only line of defence against short-circuiting. However, they are one of the safest and most efficient storage options available. As long as you follow precautions when charging and discharging, these storage systems are secure to use.

Incorporating a solar storage system is the key to optimising solar power in rural areas. Unlike inner-city homes, remote homes can’t switch to grid power when solar panels aren’t generating electricity. Therefore, a solar battery is crucial for remote living to ensure that alternative sources of power are available for those downtimes.

Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries will have an average lifespan of two to three years or roughly 400 charge cycles – whichever comes first. Moreover, when choosing a size, you need to consider your daily energy consumption, the scale of your solar panel system, and the weather patterns where you live. You will need to make sure your storage system can power you through those Canadian winters.

Some evidence suggests that white snow may increase solar energy yield in the winter due to its ability to reflect the light to the PV cell. However, if your solar panels aren’t coping with the harsh winters, you may want to consider getting a backup generator for your solar storage. This precaution ensures you have power all year round if your storage unit doesn’t do the trick.

However, with that said, when properly designed and expertly installed, a stand-alone solar power system stands a good chance of keeping up with your energy demands and the changing elements.

Read more about how the weather affects solar panels.

Why is Solar Energy Good for Remote Living?

A 2013 study found that using solar energy typically reduces a household’s carbon emissions by 80%, in comparison to fossil fuels.

Solar energy systems can be a worthwhile and relatively reliable investment, whether you’re considering them for your home, business, or ESG portfolio. They come with a myriad of potential benefits, from saving you money to reducing your carbon footprint.

Solar energy systems are becoming more affordable

If we travel back in time, solar energy systems used to be a very expensive way to generate electricity, and in reality, they weren’t a feasible option for your average homeowner. But as the demand for these renewable energy systems has increased, solar power has become more affordable – and it’s continuing to lower in price. The global solar market is projected to grow by 20.5% from 2019 to 2026. Therefore, it will become even more accessible across the world as the demand for solar power increases. But what does this mean for remote lifestyles? If you live off-grid, you may need more solar panels than the average home, as well as a solar battery. These additional items mean that installing solar systems into your home could be more expensive up-front. However, various uptrends in the renewable energy sector mean these systems are likely to remain more affordable to buy and install than they were in previous decades.

Canada is seeing a rise in renewable energy jobs

The Canadian renewable energy market is also gaining momentum and the employment prospects seem promising. According to experts at Clean Energy Canada, the national clean energy sector is set to employ 559,400 people by 2030 – recruiting for tasks such as home insulation services, manufacturing electric vehicles and technical maintenance. Moreover, their media release states that the fossil fuel sector is set to lose 50,000 jobs, while clean energy creates 160,000 new jobs.

Solar panels can be money savers

When you install solar panels, there is a chance you will have surplus energy. If this is the case, you may be able to sell your excess energy to your supplier. Moreover, by harnessing the power of sunlight, it will likely prove to be cheaper to run your home on natural sources rather than fossil fuels.

If you connect your home to the grid as a secondary measure and switch to grid energy when your solar panels aren’t generating power, you may still see some reductions in your electricity bills.

Solar power can reduce your home’s carbon footprint

One of the enormous benefits of solar panels is that they can reduce your carbon footprint. A 2013 study found that using solar energy typically reduces a household’s carbon emissions by 80% compared to fossil fuels. Moreover, as sunlight is available everywhere, it is accessible to everyone, unlike fossil fuels that are only abundant in select places. When companies export non-renewable resources, this activity creates more harmful emissions.

Solar panels can offer practical solutions

As mentioned above, sunlight is available everywhere – even in the most remote places on the planet. Using a replenishable source makes solar panels accessible for lots of people and helps to lower the cost of electricity. If you are located in a remote area, it could cost you between $15,000 and $50,000 per mile to extend a power line to your home. These figures are unthinkable for many people, and the expenses associated with them could limit your living options. Therefore, solar power systems are a practical and eco-friendly alternative to grid power.
An infographic depicting how to store solar energy in a storage battery, which is ideal for remote living.

Are There Any Challenges With Relying on Solar Energy to Power Your Home?

Once a certified installer has fitted your system correctly, it can save you money across your electricity bills and may give you the opportunity to sell excess energy back to your provider.

Renewable energy sources are an attractive option for homeowners and businesses alike. But when going remote, it’s a good idea to be aware of some of the potential challenges you may encounter.

Dispose of your solar storage battery efficiently – As we have outlined above, installing a battery is essential if you are planning to use solar energy to power a rural home. A storage battery will house excess energy for use during the night and at times when your solar yield may fluctuate during winter. However, these rechargeable batteries don’t last forever, and they must be disposed of properly. You can recycle lithium-ion batteries, but it’s up to the consumers, solar energy providers and manufacturers to take responsibility for safe and eco-friendly disposal.

The set-up costs can set you back – Considerable set-up costs can potentially deter some prospective investors – and these costs may be higher if you live in a remote area and need more units. However, once a certified installer has fitted your system correctly, it can save you money across your electricity bills and potentially give you the opportunity to sell excess energy back to your provider. As the demand for solar power increases, the market is seeing PV cells become more affordable too. In many cases, the benefits of investing in solar power outweigh the initial set-up costs, but it’s best to approach opportunities from a long-term perspective.

Solar Energy for Rural Communities

Alongside Canada’s off-grid population, many remote settlements depend on solar energy to power their communities.

Clean energy, like solar, is a prevalent choice for rural communities. Particularly in Canada, where 67% of the electricity generation comes from renewable sources. Here, Ontario makes up 2.3% of Canada’s solar energy generation. Interestingly, Alberta offers some fascinating prospects for solar companies – particularly given the fact that the province is more saturated with sunlight hours than almost any other national region.

In Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation fundraised for several years to raise the required finances to install a solar system to support their residents. In 2016, they were successful, and the project inspired many people to explore off-grid solar generation.

However, alongside Canada’s off-grid population, many remote settlements depend on solar energy to power their communities.

In Africa, mini-grids are becoming more popular. As connecting to the national grid has become challenging, local authorities are continuing to install solar-powered mini-grids to power villages. In Bisanti, Nigeria, they built a mini-grid made up of 126 solar panels – enough to power 340 households, small businesses, a school, and a health clinic. One community member shared how now they have public lighting – enabling children to play at night and adults to attend night school. It’s an encouraging yet important reminder that access to electricity (renewable or otherwise) remains a pressing issue in today’s world.

The World’s Largest Solar Panel Farms

In Australia’s outback, they are already planning to build the world’s largest solar farm that is set to power Singapore.

Alongside rural communities, solar panel farms across the globe are supporting electricity generation. Some of the largest farms are installed in the most far-flung locations.

Firstly, the remote Egyptian desert is home to a giant solar farm consisting of 7.2 million photovoltaic panels, making this renewable energy project visible from space. With one of the most expansive supplies of solar energy, this solar farm has attracted notable attention. In fact, the Egyptian government aims for the nation to generate 42% of its domestic power from renewable sources.

Moreover, in Australia’s outback, they are already planning to build the world’s largest solar farm set to power Singapore. Developers are currently aiming for construction to commence in 2023 and energy production to start by 2026. These ambitious plans are a massive step for the renewable energy sector and will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Although Egypt’s epic solar farm is one of the largest in the world, China is currently on top with the most solar energy generated by one country. Although the nation produces the most global CO2 emissions (28% to be exact) its commitment to renewable sources is encouraging. Interestingly, many of these solar farms are in remote locations where open space is plentiful.

Closing Thoughts

Across Canada, 200,000 people live off-grid, and this number may be likely to rise, especially as solar power becomes more affordable. Being self-sufficient can have many benefits: generating cheaper electricity, reducing your home’s carbon footprint, reducing your impact on the environment, and more. Living in a remote location can bring various challenges, but solar helps to make rural living more practical. It’s essential to keep the momentum going and continue to invest in solar energy projects ranging from private-scale ventures to utility-scale developments. Switching to clean, renewable energy is a progressive step in the fight to beat global warming, and solar can help us get there.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can you live off-grid with solar panels?

Living off-grid with solar panels can be a great option. Unlike fossil fuels, sunlight is available everywhere, making it an incredibly accessible and renewable source. In order to ensure you have power access all year round, it’s crucial to set up solar storage so you can store excess capacity that’s ready for use when your panels aren’t generating energy. During the night is the key time a solar storage system will come in useful because there is no sunlight to convert. Solar panels can offer remote ‘off-gridders’ a lower cost of living and reduce residential carbon footprints by about 80%.

 

How much maintenance do solar panels need?

Another benefit of investing in solar panels for your home or business is that they need little maintenance – owing to the fact that they have no moving parts. Your solar array may require occasional cleaning, but the frequency of this will depend on how you have installed your panels and the weather in your area. If you have slanted solar panels, cleaning is easier as debris and snow can slide off. Whereas if you have flat panels, you may benefit from wiping them down occasionally (especially if you live in a particularly dusty area). With that said, rainfall will help your solar energy system because it will wash away anything that doesn’t belong there.

In all, the low maintenance nature of solar panels makes them a desirable option. What’s more, they rarely need replacing, which will help to reduce carbon emissions even further as replacement units aren’t needed all the time.

 

What is solar storage, and why is it essential for remote living?

Solar storage is essential for remote living because solar panels do not produce energy at night, so it’s important to have a means of accessing power when it’s dark. Solar storage systems usually feature a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These typically last two to three years (or between 300 and 500 charge cycles) but must be disposed of responsibly.

 

How can you invest in solar projects?

Investing in solar energy is an impressive way to reduce the effects of climate change, and it’s vital to keep the momentum going by supporting solar projects. You can invest in solar energy by installing residential solar energy systems on your private property, exploring corporate solar power options, or investing in solar stocks. The market is growing rapidly and is currently projected to grow 20.5% from 2019 to 2026. Furthermore, we can see this growth within clean energy employment too. In fact, the Canadian clean energy sector plans to employ 559,400 people by 2030, which will help boost the already growing renewable energy sector. It’s prime time to get ahead of the curve and invest in solar energy now to support its continued growth.

 

Where are the world’s most remote solar panel farms?

Across the globe, manufacturers are building solar panel farms to power everything from small rural communities to large cities. In the heart of the Egyptian desert, Benban Solar Park houses approximately 7.2 million solar panels, so many that you can see them from space. Installing a giant solar farm is a massive step for the country, and the government aims to generate 42% of its power from renewable sources. Moreover, plans are going ahead to build the world’s largest solar farm in the Australian outback. It is currently set to generate electricity by 2026 and aims to power Singapore. These renewable energy farms are just some ways solar panels support communities in rural and urban spaces.

 

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