Worker carrying a large solar panel toward a house under construction © Mint Images, Tim Pannell, The Agency Collection, Getty Images

Sixteen years ago, architect Ken Haggard faced a major decision when a forest fire destroyed his home and office. Should he rebuild on the grid, or take the jump into energy independence?

"We were talking about sustainability, so we wanted to show what could be done," Haggard said from his office in Santa Margarita, Calif., which sits on national forest land halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Haggard and his partner, Polly Cooper, ended up spending about $15,000 on solar panels, a small hydropower unit and other gear to allow their San Luis Sustainability Group to cut its ties to the power grid.

The move made sense for a firm that specializes in energy-efficient buildings, and Haggard figures the company hit break-even within three years, based on energy savings of about $500 a month.

Haggard's story is an extreme case, but solar power is growing in popularity among homeowners, although still a relatively tiny market with installations in a mere 300,000 of the nation's 132 million homes.

So what does it take to get off the grid?

Costs for solar panels have decreased since Haggard installed his system, with the average cost plunging by 60% since 2011, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. The home solar company Sunrun estimates that residential photovoltaic panels range from $4,500 to $12,000 for a typical home. Installation, wiring and an inverter will add thousands more. If you want to get completely off the grid, add up to $7,000 for a well and $5,000 for a septic system and the total costs can easily mount to $30,000.

For consumers on the grid, it rarely makes financial sense to cut themselves off, says Greg Pahl, the author of "Power from the People," which focuses on how American communities can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.

"The cost of the technology -- wind, solar or maybe hydro – tends to be pretty high in terms of initial capital investment, so most people from a purely financial standpoint don't consider it unless they're so far from the power grid that it would be prohibitive to install a power line."

Wind turbines, which some consumers are installing for home usage, earned a cautionary note from Consumer Reports last year. The publication said recouping the $11,000 cost of a Honeywell WT6500 Wind Turbine could "take more than a lifetime."

But if you already are on the grid, you might consider installing a wind or solar system anyway to help defray your power costs.

"Your electric meter spins backward when you feed energy into your home," Pahl says. You can get a credit if your system produces more power than your home consumes.

Interested, yet still balking at the upfront cost? Consider leasing solar panels, a route taken by Charlene Wallace and Leah Wittenberg of Burlington, Vermont.

Because they didn't want to shell out thousands for an initial investment, the couple leases solar panels from SunCommon for $71 per month. Since their system was hooked to their electric meter in March, they've already generated enough energy to earn a small credit of $15.34 from the local electric company.

Pahl, who lived off the grid for about five years, says looking at energy independence as a long-term investment may make it more appealing, particularly as energy costs have increased. "It's a hedge against future price increases of energy," he says.

He adds, "Living with renewable technologies has become much more mainstream. Just because you happen to use renewable energies doesn't mean you're a hermit."

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In Haggard's case, every appliance and light system in residence, office and shop, is powered by solar panels. The hydropower unit, which runs off a nearby creek, provides a backup power, helpful in winter months when the solar panels provide less energy. He uses efficient appliances and a passive solar water heater to reduce power usage.

Still, occasionally the system has a blip.

"We go down once a year," Haggard notes. "Someone messes up and leaves the coffee machine on all night."