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Science & Environment

Apartment Dwellers At New Complex Benefit From Rooftop Solar Panels

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Rooftop solar panels have gotten really popular because homeowners can sell any surplus power they generate to their utility company. Now, there's a company in Utah which is trying to make that an option for people who rent apartments. Leia Larsen with member station KUER in Salt Lake City reports.

LEIA LARSEN, BYLINE: Aurora and Seth McCausland and their two kids live in the newly constructed Soleil Lofts. They like the apartment's stainless-steel appliances, modern tile and sweeping mountain views. But the main reason they moved here is a sleek white box in the middle of their living room.

SETH MCCAUSLAND: We always have people ask us about it whenever we - they come over. They're always like, what is that? They always think it's, like, a fridge or something (laughter).

LARSEN: Actually, it's a battery. It stores power generated by solar panels on the roof. The batteries are state-of-the-art, which pushes up the rent here by about $150 for a one-bedroom unit. But to Aurora, the clean energy component makes it worth the extra cost.

AURORA MCCAUSLAND: We loved the idea of moving somewhere where it's doing something good for the environment.

LARSEN: Soleil Lofts is a pilot project for PacifiCorp, which provides electricity to six western states. The company controls the battery inside each apartment. So when the solar panels are generating more energy than their residents need, they can dispatch it elsewhere. The batteries are key because rooftop solar tends to produce energy during the day when demand for electricity is low. Michael Craig, an assistant professor of energy systems at the University of Michigan, says projects like Soleil Lofts create a virtual power plant, a network of flexible generators that produce energy locally instead of at a big centralized plant that's far away.

MICHAEL CRAIG: You can take a virtual power plant and operate it as if you would operate a gas plant or a coal plant, for instance, by smoothing the resource out and by shifting some of the resources into periods when you want it most.

LARSEN: Still under construction, the 21 building, 600 apartment Soleil Lofts is one of the largest projects of its kind in the West and one of the first virtual power plant projects built from the ground up.

CRAIG: I think it's significant just because virtual power plants are relatively new. And it's always great to see more and more demonstration of emerging technologies in the field.

LARSEN: PacifiCorp's Bill Comeau says virtual power plants could be a small part of the company's big plans to take the vast majority of its coal plants offline by 2038, replacing them, in part, with renewables.

BILL COMEAU: If we have more and more of these types of things, we have all these existing assets, we wouldn't have to build as many renewable plants out there, we wouldn't have to increase our transmission lines.

LARSEN: Taking green technologies you install at home and using them to benefit the community is called being a good grid citizen, says Kate Bowman with the advocacy group Utah Clean Energy.

KATE BOWMAN: You can think about how to manage your energy use in a way that isn't just helping you save money on bills or helping you cut your environmental footprint but actually helps to make the grid as a whole more flexible.

LARSEN: Bowman says the Soleil Lofts project could help PacifiCorp provide battery solutions to more of its rooftop solar customers around the West as home batteries are becoming more affordable. Back in his apartment, Seth McCausland isn't too shy to brag about being a good grid citizen.

S MCCAUSLAND: I like to bring it up because people would be like, wow, your apartment's really cool. And it's like yeah, but it's also solar-powered.

LARSEN: For NPR News, I'm Leia Larsen in Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S “YOU'VE NEVER HAD IT SO GOOD”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.