Modern technology offers everything we need to avoid rolling blackouts, and quickly, when paired with modern policies
By Lynn Jurich, co-Founder and CEO, Sunrun
We all know a massive heat wave swept California last week forcing rolling blackouts for the first time in 20 years. What you may not know is that a few thousand forward-thinking homeowners installed solar rechargeable batteries that fed power into the grid when it was most strained, helping reduce the magnitude of the blackouts. These homeowners were also able to power through the outage with the remaining electricity stored in their batteries.
With wildfire season upon us and no sign of extreme weather subsiding, we can make a plan to move quickly with technologies readily available. The good news is solar rechargeable batteries are affordable and appealing to consumers, and California has a foundation of policies in place to support their deployment for both low-income residents, vulnerable communities, and other households.
We simply need more to create a systematic benefit. For example, it would take only 75,000 rooftop properties in Los Angeles with solar and batteries to generate approximately 300 megawatts of energy -- the same amount as a local natural gas-fired power plant slated for retirement. These home solar and batteries will even cost less than what families would otherwise pay for traditional utility power.
This is our chance to reimagine development of the electric grid for the 21st century. Of course, no single resource can prevent blackouts by itself, but if we don’t change we will end up on a path requiring expensive rate payer investments in traditional utility upgrades costing an estimated $2 trillion through 2030. In PG&E alone, grid reliability initiatives are expected to cost $21 billion. These investments cannot affordably create the flexibility and resilience the grid requires and can already get from producing and storing power locally. Let’s produce more power where it is consumed, on existing buildings, without having to transmit it over aging poles and wires that are vulnerable to fires and high winds. We can then create an energy internet with rooftop solar and batteries to interact with the centralized grid more cost effectively and provide the flexibility we need.
While California has strongly supported and encouraged the adoption of solar rechargeable batteries, unfortunately installations are slowed at the local level where red tape causes unnecessary delays, drives up costs, and limits the number of people who can participate in the programs when they need this technology most. It takes only a day to install a solar and battery system, but customers often wait up to 60 days for the approval to install and another 60 days for approval to turn it on.
In contrast, the Governor suspended installation and permitting blockers for fossil-fuel burning generators during the black-out period. This is a wasted opportunity that should have included rooftop solar and advanced residential battery storage, which can be charged from the grid or rooftop solar. Permitting delays for battery storage are especially problematic for programs that are trying to get batteries into vulnerable, low income communities ahead of the wildfire season. Europe, Asia, and Australia treat solar and batteries as simple appliances and all installs happen in a matter of days, hence why it’s more cost effective there. I believe American ingenuity can create a similar process.
This is not just a California problem. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy knocked out power for 2.7 million people in New Jersey. The response was to invest billions of dollars into grid reinforcement using the same system of poles and wires that failed before. Just weeks ago, Isaias, which was a much weaker storm, caused blackouts for 1.4 million people, even after these improvements were in place. On Long Island, it’s common practice to truck in diesel generators to keep peoples’ lights on during the summer. None of this is sustainable or necessary in a modern, forward-thinking society.
Significant action to modernize the grid will also boost our economy. Solar installers were already the fastest growing job in the United States before the pandemic hit. It’s estimated that the rapid transformation of our energy system would create nearly 30 million local, non-exportable jobs in the US over the next decade.
Together we can turn this crisis into an opportunity to build a stronger, cleaner and more resilient energy system. Generating and storing clean power lowers electricity costs and emissions, offers individual backup power during outages, and reduces the frequency of blackouts for the greater community.