A week off the grid and in touch with energy

CNET's Martin LaMonica spends some time visiting an off-grid, solar-powered resort, a place where you're keenly aware of where your energy and water come from.

There's nothing like living off-grid for a while to make you aware of your environmental and energy footprint. During a family vacation to Belize last week, I got a flavor for what's needed to function, albeit at a leisurely pace, when you're far beyond the reach of power lines.

This was a special trip, mostly paid for by my wife's company as a gift for 20 years of work. So we made the most of it, traveling to some seriously nice spots with an eye toward experiencing the great natural resources of this small Central American country.

The most vivid environmental lesson came to me when we visited one of the islands, or cays, that pop out along the 240-mile barrier reef off the coast. Bringing power lines to a place that takes 35 minutes to get to by boat obviously doesn't make sense, so most of these types of resorts rely on diesel generators. Our location, by contrast, relied largely on solar power.

When Americans buy rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, the total output when the sun is shining is typically anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 watts or more. But the individual cabins at this resort ran on just one or two solar panels, making maybe 200 to 300 watts. You could barely run a home computer and television with that much juice.

Off-grid and the island life: a natural combination. Martin LaMonica/CNET

But having puny solar power generation is no big deal when all you need is a couple of lights, fan, and water pump. Like another off-grid resort we stayed at, the rooms did not have electrical outlets. If you need to charge your phone or camera battery, you bring your gear to the main office which has a bigger battery pack maintained by periodic use of a generator. It's one way that resorts can keep a handle on their electricity consumption and a reminder of how electronics are eating a bigger piece of the power pie in our daily lives.

I have solar PV panels on my house and, apart from removing snow and washing them off once in awhile, they require very little attention. At this resort, though, I got the impression that ensuring that the lead-acid batteries that serve the main building are operating at the right voltage is a bit more work.

The setup, which includes 16 panels and two sets of battery banks (one for the main building and one for a freezer), also require monthly maintenance to clean the panels and check the acid levels in the batteries, according to the staff.

The resort still uses a generator, but a smaller one than a comparably sized building, which they run for a few hours at night and, if there's no sun, for a couple hours in the morning. An obvious benefit of this hybrid solar-diesel power setup is that less expensive fuel needs to be transported and used. And for the guests, it means less noise. Who wants to hear or smell a generator clanging away?

Experiments in sustainable living
But energy, of course, isn't the only thing you become acutely aware of when you're on an island, where everything--food, fuel, waste, etc.--is brought in and out by boat. Fresh water, in particular, stands out as an obviously precious resource, something that billions of people around the world struggle with every day.

A battery bank attached to a diesel generator used to power an off-grid jungle resort Martin LaMonica/CNET

At our island getaway, the resort collected rain water and stored it in concrete cisterns under each cabin. In addition, they use stand-alone water tanks for backup, something I saw a lot of as I drove around the country's highways.

Water is heated by butane and moved using 12-volt pumps. "Gray" water from sinks and showers simply goes into the ground. With such a fragile water system, you don't even think about taking a long shower.

When I asked one of the managers why this resort went solar and collected rain water, his answer was pretty simple: we just do it because we believe in preserving the environment. For a country with an evident economic incentive--tourist dollars, for example--in maintaining its natural resources, that makes sense.

So I had a nice vacation in a beautiful natural spot--what does that have to do with my real life back in chilly New England? I'm certainly not planning on going off-grid, but it was eye-opening to see all the pieces of basic infrastructure--food, water, fuel, power, transport--operating up close and small scale. Everybody needs a reliable and modern infrastructure, but in this case they made it cleaner, too.

 

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