The answer to which is better, a generator or solar power, depends entirely on how much you plan to use it. A generator can have an advantage on short term use. But a generator can not compete with solar power for long term and large scale output.
This might seem contrary to the current dialogue. But ask yourself, if generators were better, then why are so many utilities spending money on solar instead of conventional power plants?
Utilities, like any other business, need to be profitable. If solar panels were detrimental, then they couldn’t afford to install them.
But what about for personal use? Would a small portable generator be better than solar power? Again, that depends entirely on how much you plan to use it.
In the following, we will share our personal experiences living off-grid as sort of a ‘real life vs. classroom’.
Generator Vs Solar Power: Assumptions
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
When we were building our house in, back in 2015, there was a great deal of skepticism as to whether or not solar power could do the job of powering our home.
Our house has every normal convenience, including microwave, A/C, ect. The general consensus from the ‘experts’ was that solar power was not up to the task and that it would only be a matter of time before, “they’re begging the power company to hook-up.”
In fact, part of the reason that we were able to get the occupancy permit at all was due to our whole house generator. It was felt that this generator was capable enough to cover us until we came to our senses.
The ‘experts’ could not have been more wrong!
Since moving in, we have experienced four power outages. Three of those outages were from generator failure and the fourth was from the solar power system (though it should be noted that the component that failed is directly connected to the generator).
The conventional wisdom held by the ‘experts’ was that a generator was a proven and reliable source of power.
Reality proved to be different.
Generator & Longevity
One thing that should be understood when discussing generators is that most of them are called ‘back-up’ or ‘standby’ generators. And there is a reason for this.
A lot of these generators are built with very limited use in mind. They’re not like cars where, if you do proper maintenance and drive it easy, it will last. Some of these generators are designed with a definite ‘shelf-life’.
How do I know this?
Because our name brand generator had these failures all occur within 150 hour window.
- The windings come undone on the generator.
- Crank fail on the engine.
- Computer fail.
In other words, every single component of our generator failed within a very short window of each other.
One might think this would lead us to be jaded towards generators, and in part, we are. It can be frustrating to scale back ones’ expectations. But that does not mean that we can ignore the benefits of a generator.
The fuel consumed by a generator is completely independent of the weather. And there is definite value in that!
If you are in need of short term power, in any kind of environment (and can secure the fuel), then a generator can be an excellent purchase. Just understand, they may not last as long you think.
Solar Power & Longevity
Solar panels, inverters and charge controllers, have a very reliable track record over all. With these making up three quarters of an off-grid power system you might think that a system built today would last you twenty plus years.
Unfortunately, battery storage is the proverbial ‘fly in the ointment’.
Batteries work on ‘cycles’ – meaning charge and discharge. And you can only charge and discharge batteries so many times before you see a performance drop.
Purchasing a large scale battery pack will allow you store more energy, meaning less charge and discharge cycles. But even still, one should understand that you are going to run out of times that you can cycle a battery.
So how do today’s whole house batteries compare to a generator?
To put things into perspective, our house runs generator free a solid nine months out of the year (let’s say at least 75% of time).
The battery package for our house was $8800.
Our name brand generator cost $5500.
The generator failed three times costing us $3800 in repairs and has been replaced (an additional $3600). This gives us a total cost to date of $12,900.
Our battery package is showing signs of age, but is still going.
To be completely objective, one must consider the cost of the entire package – including the panels, inverter, charge controllers, ect – when comparing a generator vs solar power. And we haven’t lived here long enough to see how the numbers are actually going to end up.
But based on our experience so far, solar power is the obvious best option for long term power generation, both in reliability and most likely in cost.
Generator Vs Solar Power: Weather
Any conversation regarding the benefits of solar power must include the weather. Sometimes it is cloudy and solar panels do not perform at their best when it is cloudy.
For those of you who live in the snowy regions, I can tell you that solar panels don’t work very well when there is 5 inches of snow on them either!
Our propane generator doesn’t care if it is sunny outside or not. It doesn’t care if there is two feet of snow on the ground. So long as we have fuel (and it hasn’t broken down) our generator will provide us power.
Generator Vs Solar Power: Environment
The environment seems to be in every conversation these days and that’s understandable. It is, after all, the only one we have. And because of this, it is in our best interest to see that the environment is taken care of.
Here is where solar panels really perform.
Not only do we avoid the using the fossil fuel necessary to run a generator, but the fossil fuel used in shipping the propane to our house. For an in-depth look at this, please read, ‘Is Solar Power Good For The Environment?’
It should be noted that this process occurs every time you run your generator.
In comparison, solar panels use no fossil fuel and are advertised to work for decades.
Just how much fossil fuel would a generator consume over the twenty to thirty years of performance from solar power?
Generator Vs Solar Power: Final Thoughts
With the influence of electronics so infused in our daily lives, it’s easy to understand just how much we need reliable power. Having your own means of producing this crucial power, isn’t just for preppers… it’s for everyone!
So what is the best way to go out about it?
The best way is the way that most accurately meets your needs.
Ask yourself these questions:
- How much power do I need – Are you planning on running your entire house and if so, do you know just how much electricity that is?
- How often do I plan on using this power – Are you hoping to provide in those rare occasions that the power grid is down or do you want to use it more?
- Is this power compatible with my home – Standby generators can generally be added easily to your home. Solar power that will work during a blackout, is a little more complex and requires the permission of the utility.
In summary, purchasing a standby generator is less costly and will get you more Kilowatt performance, but requires fuel and has limited use when compared to a solar power system that runs year round with no cost towards fuel.