This year, PG&E has tried a new tactic. It imposes rolling blackouts and leaves millions of people without electric service. Southern California Edison has warned customers that it, too, may shut off some power.
Although so far only PG&E has imposed preemptive blackouts, the weather has long caused power outages all over the country. Much of my area lost power for three days last year because of a hurricane. We are not near where it made landfall.
One house in my neighborhood has a gas generator and transfer switch. Although this technology has been around at least since the turn of the century, it’s not common. The generators cost thousands of dollars. They have to run for a few minutes every week, which adds to the gas bill. And they’re noisy.
Home energy storage has been around only since Tesla announced the PowerWall in 2015. They cost thousands of dollars and can catch fire. Not many homes have them. Have the wildfires made homeowners and homebuilders take another look?
Barriers to adoption of energy storage
In 2013 the Sandia National Laboratories reported on barriers to energy storage. The high capital cost of energy storage was coming down, but other barriers remained.
The report came out two years before PowerWall did. Therefore, it concerned grid-level energy storage, but the same barriers apply to home energy storage.
These include upfront costs, regulation, market conditions, utility and developer business models, cross-cutting barriers, and technology. Cross-cutting means the limited knowledge various power-system stakeholders have of energy storage technology.
The legal environment has changed enough that this report no longer adequately describes it. On the other hand, plenty of regulatory barriers remain. There appears to be less progress in some of the other barriers.
It always takes the economy time to absorb new technologies. First, it must identify markets, products, pricing, and return on heavy capital investment. When the report was issued, the sluggish economy made it too much of a risk for utilities and developers to deploy new and untested resources.
The recession is over, but the improved economy hasn’t made unfamiliar and costly technologies seem much less risky.
What’s more, renewable energy has long challenged utilities’ business models. Utilities have relied on centralized generation for more than a century. They have seen home solar as a threat to their survival. Demand response and microgrids can go a long way toward improving electric service. Neither the utilities nor regulatory agencies have figured out a way to integrate these and other new concepts into their models.
Two recent examples of home energy storage adoption in California
Howard Matis of Berkeley installed two Tesla PowerWalls in his house just two days before PG&E shut off the electricity. Home solar has become more common in California than in most of the US. Unfortunately, panels on a house on the grid won’t work when the utility shuts it off. Matis probably had plenty of neighbors with rooftop panels and no power in their houses.
Tesla has recently offered a $1,000 discount for Californians affected by the blackouts. That helps, but each Powerwall costs $6,500. Installing them costs thousands more. Federal tax credits and state rebates also help bring down the cost. But until PG&E started the blackouts, the incentives didn’t create a significant demand for storage systems.
The Tubbs Fire destroyed neighborhoods in Santa Rosa, California in 2017. Of all the houses reconstructed since then, only one uses a concept called “Net Zero Energy.” It has an integrated system of solar panels and battery storage that enables it to operate either on or off the grid year-round.
Developers have been reluctant to add a feature with additional upfront costs of more than $40,000. That one house is one of the most expensive in its neighborhood. But with PG&E’s power outages, potential buyers have shown more interest in it than before.
It appears that the wildfires and rolling blackouts are encouraging a few homebuyers and homeowners to consider battery backup for their solar systems. Someday, home energy storage will become a national trend. It remains to be seen how quickly it will happen even in California.
Independent energy homes not yet taking off despite fires, power outages in North Bay / John Ramos, KPIX (San Francisco TV). November 3, 2019
Market and policy barriers to energy storage deployment: a study for the energy storage systems program / Dhruv Bhatnagar et al., Sandia National Laboratories. September 2013
Solar and batteries work in a blackout, but what does that mean for the grid? / Lauren Sommer, KQED (San Francisco radio). November 4, 2019
Candle. Some rights reserved by Hrishikesh Premkumar
Solar panels. Photo by Larry D. Moore. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Home storage system. Photo by Christine Bennett. US Department of Energy