As California Burns, Customers Flock to Batteries and Solar

Power outages in the fire-prone state could mean big business for rooftop solar and storage systems

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

LLast week, large swaths of northern California went dark as the state’s largest utility cut power to hundreds of thousands of its customers. It was Pacific Gas & Electric’s third deliberate outage in two months — part of the company’s efforts to keep its aging transmission lines from sparking blazes when conditions are ripe for wildfires — and the largest blackout to date: An estimated 2.5 million people were affected.

The outages were short-lived, but they certainly won’t be the last. Climate change is making dangerous fire conditions the norm in California, and “de-energizing,” as power outages are referred to, has become a part of every major utility’s fire mitigation plan, called for by California lawmakers after some of the state’s most devastating fires in recent years were linked to malfunctioning PG&E equipment — including 2018’s deadly Camp Fire.

The blackouts are meant to be a stopgap measure while the utilities upgrade equipment and clear vegetation around power lines, but these mitigation efforts are expected to take years and billions of dollars to complete.

In the meantime, PG&E is “encouraging customers to be prepared for public safety power shutoffs in the event of a dry wind event like we’re experiencing right now. That includes, if applicable, having a generator, having a plan, and being prepared to go without power for at least 48 hours, if not more,” PG&E spokesperson Melissa Subbotin told OneZero. “PG&E has a plan, we want our customers to have a plan.”

But there’s another option, one that the utility has spent years lobbying against in the state: rooftop solar and storage.

“I just think the future is in more homes having backup systems and solar power to create enough self-sustainability for when they are going to have to be off the grid.”

“We’ve been a longtime supporter of solar,” PG&E spokesperson Denny Boyles told OneZero. “We don’t sell it or install it, but we work with customers who get it.” But historically, the state’s investor-owned utilities, including PG&E, have fought against the kinds of rate structures and financial incentives that make solar affordable for their customers, arguing that distributed power generation unfairly shifts the costs of maintaining and upgrading the grid onto customers without solar panels. In 2015, utilities successfully lobbied the California Public Utilities Commission to vote for steep fees for customers in cities that join or create renewable energy consortiums that purchase energy directly from producers, rather than through utilities like PG&E.

But as blackouts threaten to become commonplace in the fire-prone state, residents seem increasingly willing to pay the price to detach from the grid. Fortunately, advances in solar technology are making it easier for them to do so.

DDerek Krause, a retired firefighter, installed a solar panel and battery storage system on his home in Oakland earlier this year. “I just think the future is in more homes having backup systems and solar power to create enough self-sustainability for when they are going to have to be off the grid,” he told OneZero. “Seems like a trend.”

There are hundreds of solar installers and developers in California, which leads the nation in solar energy, but it was the recent revolution in battery technology that finally convinced Krause to “pull the trigger.”

“For years we had solar panels, but when the grid would go down, the solar panels wouldn’t work because they’re grid-tied,” Anne Hoskins, the chief policy officer at Sunrun (the largest residential solar and storage company in the United States) told OneZero. “What we’re able to do now with the battery technology, and with smart inverters, which basically manage the solar and the batteries, is that the homes can be shut off from the grid when there’s an outage.”

While PG&E’s Subbotin told OneZero that most solar setup batteries can only store two hours of power, Sunrun’s “Brightbox,” which currently works with small, lithium-ion batteries, can back up eight to 12 hours’ worth of power, the company says, enough to get some customers through the night.

The cost of lithium-ion batteries has dropped from roughly $1,550 per kilowatt hour in 2010 to around $350 today, according to a 2019 report from Sunrun. According to Hoskins, a quarter of Californians who buy or lease solar installations from the company are now choosing to include battery storage in their setup. “In some parts of California, it’s as high as 60%,” she says.

Many of Sunrun’s customers choose to install solar for financial benefits: California’s solar-friendly rate structures allow customers with solar panels to generate electricity during the day, store it in a battery, and then tap into those reserves when electricity demand and prices spike in the evening.

“That’s where batteries have been very effective for customers. But now they’ll get both benefits,” Hoskins says. “They can use it to deal with the economic challenges of our utility system, but then also have it to deal with the reliability challenges of our utility system, where they’re shutting down power for five days at a time.” Tesla Inc., which also sells and leases solar packages, reported in April that sales of battery systems are up in California and in hurricane-prone regions such as Florida and Puerto Rico. In customer surveys, “emergency backup” is the number one reason homeowners are choosing solar.

In April, California Governor Gavin Newsom noted in his plan to bankroll the state’s wildfire prevention efforts that California has experienced “phenomenal growth in electric generation by customers… particularly in the form of rooftop solar.” State officials hope that growth will continue.

“Things have to radically change.”

“If we’re less reliant on this larger, investor-owned utility, then even if there is a shutdown, it’s not as horrible,” says State Senator Bob Wieckowski. A member of the Democratic chair of the Senate budget committee, Wieckowski would like to see more funds allocated to fire prevention, including incentives for distributed power generation, such as microgrids, and rooftop solar and storage.

In a press conference Thursday night, Governor Gavin Newsom called the scale of the blackout “unacceptable.” De-energizing is an “important tool” when conditions call for it, Newsom told reporters, but that these kinds of blackouts “can’t be the new normal.”

“It is a false choice to say that it’s hardship or safety,” he said. “Things have to radically change.”

PG&E may maintain control over electricity access for hundreds of thousands of Californians, but in recent years, utilities’ political power has waned in the state. “The utilities in California don’t have the same political influence in Sacramento that they once had. They’ve lost a lot of face,” Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California–Santa Barbara, told OneZero, citing high-profile disasters such as the San Bruno pipeline explosion and the Camp Fire. PG&E is now in bankruptcy due to damages from the record-breaking blaze.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission expanded incentives for solar and storage installations, earmarking $100 million for solar installations for low-income, or otherwise vulnerable households, in “high fire threat” areas.

According to PG&E’s Boyles, the utility’s position on such incentives has not changed. “Our position on that is always going to be that we want the rate structure to be fair and equitable for all customers, so that customers who don’t have solar aren’t asked to subsidize those who do,” he said.

Proponents of solar argue that a distributed network can actually make the grid more resilient to wildfire threats. “This is often cast as the people with the solar versus the people who don’t have it, but now if you have a customer who invests in solar and battery, they are able to take pressure off of these long distance transmission lines that are stressed, and that are creating fire risks,” Hoskins says. “It’s a benefit to everybody.”

“Unfortunately, situations like we’re facing in California today should be a real wake-up call that business as usual just isn’t working,” she adds. “But we do have the technology and a lot of creative ideas to try to do things differently.”

freelance environmental journalist. @katewheeling

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