© 2020 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Power Outages Mean For Solar's Potential

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The recent blackouts in California have millions of people looking for ways to keep the power on. Some bought portable generators, but there was a huge spike in interest in another technology - solar panels and home batteries. Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Power is out at every house on this block in the Berkeley Hills. You could tell 'cause all the cars are parked outside the garages 'cause the garage doors won't open, except for one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

HOWARD MATIS: Well, it works.

SOMMER: Hi, there.

MATIS: Hi.

SOMMER: I'm Lauren.

MATIS: Hi, Lauren.

SOMMER: The lights were on at Howard Matis's house during the last PG&E outage. His fridge...

MATIS: Which you can see - fully powered and cold.

SOMMER: That's because inside his garage...

MATIS: OK. We can go up here.

SOMMER: ...Are two Tesla Powerwall batteries, about four feet tall, mounted on the wall.

MATIS: The whole house - everything - everything is powered by these two batteries.

SOMMER: The solar panels on his roof keep them charged. Solar alone won't usually work during an outage because it's still connected to the grid. But batteries let you wire a house to be its own little island, a 24-hour microgrid. Matis bought this system because he expects California's fire problem to get worse.

MATIS: I lived through one disaster, and so I know what a wildfire is like.

SOMMER: Matis lost his home in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire. Some of his neighbors died trying to escape. People there are more fire-aware now. The power lines are buried underground. But they're not immune from PG&E's blackouts. Matis is still frustrated with the utility.

MATIS: I've talked to PG&E in the past, and I realized they didn't know what they're talking about.

SOMMER: Folks from the utility beg to differ. But other companies see an opportunity in that resentment.

ANNE HOSKINS: We've had a very big uptick in - I guess we would call them leads.

SOMMER: Anne Hoskins is chief policy officer at Sunrun. It sells solar and battery systems.

HOSKINS: We have a better way than relying on this, you know, over-a-century-old system.

SOMMER: Hoskins says the batteries aren't just for emergencies. Homeowners can use them every day to store solar power, unlike portable gas generators.

HOSKINS: They're loud. They're dirty. And that also contributes to the problem, in our view, that we're facing, which is climate change.

SOMMER: But batteries are pricey. A Powerwall costs more than $6,000, plus installation. Hoskins says state rebates and federal tax credits can knock thousands off that price, and Tesla is offering a discount for Californians affected by the blackouts. Still, there's the potential for wealthier homeowners to buy their way out of these blackouts, leaving everyone else feeling the brunt.

HOSKINS: How can we build a system so that all those investments that people are making can bring a benefit to the grid as a whole?

SOMMER: Hoskins says that's possible. You can have a bunch of solar and batteries in people's homes that can feed into the local grid and supply everyone. It's called a virtual power plant. Sunrun is planning one in West Oakland, where 500 low-income households will get solar and batteries. The idea is that making power locally means you don't need as many big transmission lines to bring it in from far away.

SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: There's definitely some truth to that, but there's also some real cost to trying to operate smaller grids independently.

SOMMER: Severin Borenstein is an energy economist at UC Berkeley. He says utilities could spend billions on these microgrids, but they'll also need to spend billions on improving the existing grid to prevent fires.

BORENSTEIN: When we make all these investments, if we load it all into electricity rates, we're going to have even higher electricity rates.

SOMMER: And higher rates make generating your own power even more attractive, potentially driving more Californians to install solar and batteries at home.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

(SOUNDBITE OF A.A.L (AGAINST ALL LOGIC)'S "FLASH IN THE PAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.