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Why solar homes also go dark during California’s blackout

When wind-driven wildfires whip across California, some homeowners with solar systems might assume they’ll still have electricity if the utility company cuts power to prevent blazes sparked by damaged equipment.

But they’d be wrong.

“It’s sort of a natural assumption that people would think this … and it’s hard to break through that,” said Brad Heavner, policy director for the California Solar & Storage Association.

Homeowners with solar power need a backup system that can store electricity for use when the power goes out, Heavner said, and the most efficient, clean and cost-effective systems are tied to solar power.

“A lot of people go out and buy generators because that’s the cheapest option,” he said. “But with solar storage, you’re also saving on your monthly utility bills year-round when you’re not relying on it for backup.”

Last month, Southern California Edison initiated five power shutoffs. The largest affected 30,000 customers in six counties. Another shutoff impacted 24,000 customers in six counties and lasted 25 hours, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. In the Bay Area, millions went without power when PG&E cut power to stave off fires.

Power shutoffs are generally little more than an unwelcome annoyance for most residents. But for the disabled, tethered to ventilators or dependent on electric wheelchairs, the interruptions can have dire consequences.

In some cases, the standard 48-hour advance notice of a shutdown fails to provide enough time to make arrangements for backup respirators or physical assistance. Beyond that, Californians with electric cars have no way to charge their vehicles at home — or even at a local charging station, potentially leaving thousands without a fast way to evacuate.

Backup options

The California Solar & Storage Association’s mission is to promote the use of smart, clean energy technologies. The organization offers a breakdown of the benefits, drawbacks and costs associated with various systems:

Portable generator ($400-$1,100): This is the cheapest option for those without solar power. These systems typically run on gasoline and are loud, polluting and foul-smelling. There’s also a danger of carbon monoxide fumes getting into your home.

Backup generator ($7,000-$16,000): These systems are also for homeowners without solar, but they’re pricier and equally loud and polluting. They run on natural gas or liquid propane and are subject to interruptions if your gas line is turned off during a blackout or if you don’t have enough propane on hand.

Energy storage only ($7,000-$14,000): Unlike portable and backup generators, this system is clean, quiet and requires minimal maintenance. They are typically powered by lithium-ion or lead-acid batteries. This will also lower your monthly utility bills throughout the year. It can provide power for one to two days before an external power supply is needed.

Solar plus storage ($15,000-$22,000): Clean, quiet and virtually maintenance-free. The battery is charged by a connected solar system. This will reduce your utility bills and can recharge daily. But its duration will depend on the size of the system and availability of sunlight.

Adding storage to solar ($5,000-$10,000): This battery system can be added to an existing solar system. Duration again depends on the size of the system and available sunlight.

Dry brush, high temperatures, low humidity and steady winds helped spread the Tick fire Thursday, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo by Rick McClure/Special to the Los Angeles Daily News)

A smart return on investment

“If you don’t have the money upfront to pay for some of these systems you could get a loan or do a lease,” Heavner said. “You might be paying $50 a month, but you’ll also be saving $80 a month on your utility bill. If you look at the 30-year return on investment, you can hardly do better than that.”

More than 868,000 California homes have solar panels that are interconnected to the state’s power grid, and that number is about to go up.  New building standards will require all new homes permitted after Jan. 1 to have solar-powered systems.

That’s great for homeowners who want to save money on their energy costs, but utilities aren’t thrilled because increased solar use reduces demand for their power, and that demand is what justifies their spending on needed equipment and upgrades.

And when solar customers reduce their utility bills by generating their own power, utilities have to charge other, non-solar customers more — and that makes them angry.

Lots of energy-storage systems being sold

LA Solar Systems Inc., a Sunland-based company that sells and installs solar systems, is also selling lots of systems that store electricity from the power grid. They come with an inverter, battery pack and critical load panel that can supply power to key household functions, such as a refrigerator, TV and Internet service when the power goes out.

They sell for $7,000 to $20,000, depending on the size of the home and number of appliances a homeowner wants to keep running.

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“We have lots of clients asking for that,” LA Solar owner Shawn Alvandi said. “It will automatically switch on when the power goes out. And when the system runs out, the inverter can automatically turn on a backup generator.”

SCE agrees to $360 million settlement

California has endured planned power shutoffs in nearly 30 counties this year as utility companies try to prevent power lines and transformers from sparking wildfires amid powerful Santa Ana winds. The fires often begin in remote, brush-covered areas but can quickly spread to populated neighborhoods if winds are strong enough.

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, Southern California Edison announced it has agreed to pay $360 million to settle lawsuits by local governments over deadly wildfires sparked by its equipment over the past two years. The 2018 Woolsey fire destroyed more than 1,600 structures and prompted the evacuation of more than 295,000 people in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. It later resulted in mud and debris flows in Montecito that killed 23 people.

Edison’s equipment has also been tied to the 2017 Thomas Fire, which charred 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.

 Moving forward

SCE has created a $582 million Grid Safety and Resiliency Program that’s designed to protect customers and communities from the growing risk of wildfires. Under the proposal, SCE would replace nearly 600 miles of overhead power lines in high fire risk areas with insulated wire by the end of 2020. Insulated wiring would greatly reduce the potential for fires resulting from contact with metallic balloons, tree limbs, palm fronds and other objects.

SCE also is installing 15,700 current-limiting fuses designed to interrupt current more quickly, and 98 additional remote-controlled automatic reclosers. They’re used during red flag conditions to stop affected circuits from automatically re-energizing so SCE crews can inspect the lines before they are re-activated.

The utility additionally plans to install up to 160 high-definition cameras that would help pinpoint blazes and allow fire crews to respond more quickly to emerging wildfires.

In an Oct. 29 conference call with investors, SCE President and CEO Pedro Pizarro said the threat of wildfires remains very real.

“We are in the peak fire season, and the backdrop for SCE’s operational efforts continues to be severe weather conditions,” he said. “Such conditions elevate the wildfire threat in the state’s high fire risk areas. Our number one priority continues to be the safety of the public, our customers, employees and first responders. “

Source: Orange County Register

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