San Diego Power Outages: What’s Your Energy Plan?

A California state flag waves in a strong wind.
There needed to be a solution to utility infrastructure-related fire hazards after the tragic Camp fire in 2018 and the 2017 wine country fires, both of which occurred during the fall. So in 2019, with instances of high winds, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) made the decision to cut power to approximately 800,000 customers in mid-October. These high-risk areas were vulnerable due to high temperatures, low humidity and the high winds that could bring down power lines and ignite dry vegetation.
 

The move was one of great caution, but brought new risks, plenty of inconvenience, and was certainly not a perfect solution.

The move was one of great caution, but brought new risks, plenty of inconvenience, and was certainly not a perfect solution. The challenge for the utility was to prevent fires yet keep the power on for customers, particularly those in rural settings, and most particularly in areas with dense growth surrounding them. Now in late October 2019, San Diego is seeing Santa Ana wind conditions and the “red flag warnings” of possible power outages.
 
There’s a lot of frustration from utility customers. Some point fingers at improper planning, failed equipment upkeep or outdated technology. Others voice disapproval at what’s considered by many as a third world solution to California’s energy problem -- one of the wealthiest, technology savvy and advanced regions on the planet.
 
A more common frustration for utility customers is the inconvenience – and in some cases danger – of losing power through planned or unplanned power outages. Although an immediate fix at the power company level is being determined, the average California homeowner can take control of their home’s energy production and storage by installing a home solar system and a home solar battery.
 
Over 200,000 San Diego County homeowners now enjoy the benefits of a home solar system. Home solar power gives homeowners more control over their electricity by turning them into energy producers. As an additional benefit, solar panels produce clean, green, renewable energy. Through net metering, excess power is sold back to the utility grid to offset power purchased through the grid during nighttime hours. But the dream of many homeowners, especially those who have already faced or anticipate facing increasing power outages in the San Diego area, is to produce and store their own electricity. This solution enables energy control and backup power when the grid goes down. The result is a great, green solution to combat San Diego’s increasingly common power outages.
 
There are several advantages to pairing a home solar battery with a solar system. The most obvious, and most dramatic, is energy independence through the ability to keep and use your own electricity. Rather than being at the mercy of your electricity utility, you can have your own power on tap. Here are some considerations: If you were to price the perishable food in your refrigerator and freezer right now, what number do you think you’d come up with? You might have hundreds of dollars of food that could go to waste in the event of a prolonged power outage. And power outages are affecting the increasing numbers of home-based workers. When your home power is out, your home office is closed for business. And with the use of computers and tablets for schoolwork, the kids are out of luck too. There’s also your cell phone – most people charge their phone each evening to start the next morning with a full charge in that tiny battery's storage capacity. In the event of a power outage, home solar batteries with lithium ion technology (not lead acid batteries you find under the hood of your car) can allow you to start the next day with your phone battery fully charged, fresh food and the kid’s homework complete.  
 
There’s also the importance of emergency preparation – this is especially pointed when you consider the cause of the current planned increase of power outages is due to the real threat of fire. Possibly the most critical element to keeping you and your family safe in any emergency, including a brush fire in the area, is communications. Any emergency kit contains the basics – water, food, medical supplies… candles and flashlights… batteries and a radio… but imagine if your ‘emergency’ kit contained electricity. The ability to maintain normal household basics is not only a good defense against the inconvenience of a blackout, but also your reduced ability to react to emergencies. It’s a safety issue, and in an emergency you want to have all possible resources available, including power for your TV, radio, and to keep cell phone batteries charged. And adding batteries to create a larger battery bank increases your home's battery storage capacity - extra energy to discharge when the utility has failed is a comforting concept. 
 
An incidental benefit of adding home solar battery storage to a home solar system is this: home solar is connected to the grid in order to be able to send electricity back to the utility. But when the grid goes down, those solar panels on your roof are no longer feeding their energy through your inverter and into your home’s solar system. The power grid can’t have electricity traveling through it in case crews are repairing a portion of the grid, so solar panels are not able to deliver any of their electricity to the home. With the addition of a home solar battery, the solar cells gain the ability to function like any other off-grid systems - producing DC energy from the sun with solar panels, converting it to AC power through the solar system inverter, and using it directly without being tied to any other energy sources. So not only does a home solar battery store electricity for use during power outages, but it allows the solar panels to continue producing “current” electricity just as you would during a ‘regular’ day on the grid or a typical day for a home with off-grid solar. Your home would then be functioning normally during the day – all because of the independence a home solar battery gives your home power system – and that same battery capability gives you stored energy to use during the evening and night. A single home solar battery provides power to a few critical circuits, but multiple home batteries can be added to boost home battery capacity to high enough levels to keep the entire home at full capacity. The benefit of flexibility in a home solar battery storage system means it can be built with the addition or more lithium-ion batteries as your needs increase.
 
Here’s an interesting dilemma: as more homeowners have discovered the benefits of solar energy systems, it has totally changed the electricity needs of the area. For example, during a bright, sunny day (like we have almost year-round in San Diego) many households have zero energy needs from the utility company. The solar panels are producing over 100% of their energy demand, and in fact are sending the excess produced energy back to the utility company to distribute (sell) to homes that do not have residential solar panels. But when the sun sets, the excess electricity going to the utility drops, and the homes that were running on the power of their own solar energy systems then need to buy power from the utility. This causes a rapid increase in demand, and one the utilities cannot meet with their standard powerplants. They need a way to ‘ramp up’ their power production, and the solution in many cases are peaker plants. These are power plants designed to ‘spool up’ quickly to meet spiking demands for electricity on a day to day level. The peaker plants do a good job of producing the power, but it is not clean energy or renewable energy. This is dirty energy, often burning natural gas which is a fossil fuel creating emissions and increasing a city's carbon footprint. Lessening their personal carbon footprint and that of their region is something that many owners of home solar systems are trying to accomplish. Additionally, one reason energy rates are rising is due to increased demand requiring more peaker plant-produced electricity.
 
With a home battery, a conscientious homeowner could use battery power during the hours of spiking  energy demands (which generally coincide with ‘on-peak’ hours when electricity is at its most expensive) limiting the need for peaker plant generated energy.  This is an environmentally conscious use of a home energy storage system that simultaneously helps you limit or avoid paying the highest utility rates.
 
Some homes contain generator systems as solutions for back-up power in the case of a blackout out or planned power outage. This is a more common solution in areas of the world where extended winter-time power outages are very common. Home generators bring in some problems, such as cost and noise, in addition to increasing a home's carbon footprint (in contrast to solar electricity storage systems that are charging green, renewable energy into lithium-ion batteries). For homes in San Diego, particularly those that already have a home solar system, a home solar battery provides benefits a home generator cannot match – including the ability to use it in a daily manner for extra energy not just as an emergency back-up power plan. This means your emergency power can work for you by lowering energy costs daily since solar battery savings can be seen every day to combat the ever-rising cost of electricity.
 
In addition to all this, there are financial incentive programs that help reduce the cost of a home solar battery system. One of these, the Federal Investment Tax Credit, applies to solar energy systems, including solar battery storage that is charged by a home solar system. This tax credit, usually referred to as the ITC, is scheduled to end in 2022. At its current 30%, the total cost of a solar system and home solar battery can be applied directly to your tax liability (consult your tax expert if you won’t be able to use the full tax benefit for the tax year in which you purchase your system). In terms of today’s cost savings, if the average cost of a solar electric system is thirty thousand dollars, that would be a cost savings, in the form of a direct tax credit, of nine thousand dollars. Starting in 2020, the ITC is reduced to 26%. After that, in 2021, drops to 22%, and in 2022 the tax credit goes to zero. This is for residential solar and home solar battery systems only. The ITC for commercial systems will remain at 10%. The ITC benefit will reduce the payback period that it takes for a solar system and home solar battery to pay for itself.
 
There are many benefits to owning a solar power system with home solar battery storage. The major benefit is the ability to keep key circuits in your home powered in the event of a planned or unplanned power outage. Many of these outages can last for days, and the inconvenience and cost of being ‘in the dark’ makes the investment in a home solar battery look even more attractive, and in some cases critical. Solar panels + a home solar battery is the best solution for keeping you and your family safe and functioning during the next power outage.