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Up Goes Fire Danger and Out Go The Lights

Think of power outages and you may picture stormy December nights with sleet spattering the windows–probably with lights flickering out just as you cook for a dinner party. However, many of tomorrow’s outages will look completely different, coming in balmiest summer as longer, drier fire seasons force utilities to shut off power to prevent sparking from power lines. 

Such is now the case in California. The state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric, is bankrupt due to lawsuits over its failure to shut off power lines during windy weather in the longer, drier fire seasons brought by global warming. State investigators blame PG&E for 17 wildfires in 2018 alone, exposing the company to $15 billion in payments for fire damages and related lawsuits, plus billions more if the company is found responsible for the horrific Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise, killing 88. Murder and manslaughter charges against company executives have also been discussed.

The changes wrought by these cases are rippling far beyond California. Any utility with power lines and substations in drying Western wildlands now faces hard decisions about when to hit the “off” switch, and those decisions will only grow more frequent as climate change stretches fire seasons months longer, wringing every molecule of moisture from vegetation and soil. California is merely a preview of coming attractions for other western states, as well as for other dry-summer regions worldwide.

Many Californians are buying solar power systems of their own, hedging against increasingly spotty utility power. Combined with batteries, even a modest solar array can turn a home or business into a self-sustaining microgrid that keeps humming when the neighborhood goes dark. And, because fire safety outages happen during warmer months when solar production is high, solar power systems can power household basics for days or even weeks without grid power. 

Maybe it’s Time For Time-of-Use

California is already a leader in battery-equipped solar due to two smart, intertwined policies:

  1. Time-Of-Use electricity pricing, which raises electricity prices during peak demand hours and lowers them when demand is less, and pushes you to capture power when it is cheapest.
  2. State subsidies that pay most of your battery’s cost. 

These complementary programs make batteries an easy addition to home solar, and now many Californians are reaping the rewards, keeping lights on when grid power goes out. 

Better still, the whole community benefits from lower electricity prices, from electrical demand spread throughout the day, and from electrical generation closer to consumption, which reduces needs for more power plants and for more miles of power lines through tinder-dry forests. 

Neither Washington nor Idaho has time-of-use electricity pricing yet, and we don’t have any significant battery incentives, but we will probably eventually have both as the climate challenge continues to grow, and as wildfire seasons grow even faster.

What This Means For Washington and Idaho

At Northwest Renewables we often install battery-equipped solar power systems for off-grid customers in remote locations, yet we’ve never pushed batteries for the other 90 percent of our customers, who are grid-connected. After all, batteries are costly, and the Northwestern states have uniform electricity pricing throughout the day so there is no incentive to shift one’s time of consumption. 

However, the prospect of extended power blackouts during longer, more dangerous fire seasons changes the conversation. Home batteries may begin to make sense here, especially for those in more remote locations where power lines are more likely to be shut down during fire weather, and where traditional winter outages are more likely as well.

Battery Basics

Although batteries come in many varieties, the two basics are lead-acid and lithium-ion, with the latter being smaller, a little more expensive, and more tolerant of deep discharge (which can still ruin any battery, however). Yet lead-acids still excel in handling surge needs for large electric motors such as well pumps. In either case, batteries large enough to power your basic loads usually cost thousands of dollars, while shipping and installation add thousands more. Your electrical service panel probably also needs some work to allow battery backfeeding, and to create a backup loads circuit, so add another thousand or more for that. Even a starter system can easily exceed $15,000.

And because batteries are also somewhat sensitive to extreme heat or cold, an unheated outbuilding isn’t the best place to put them, so you’ll probably want to make space somewhere in the house close to the main electrical service panel. If that panel is out in the shop building, the usual solution is to house the batteries in a climate controlled box. 

However, all of these expenses are eligible for the 30 percent federal tax credit so long as the batteries are installed as part of the solar power system and are primarily charged by it.

The Energy World Ahead

There is little question that battery-equipped home solar will see growing advantages in the Northwest. As the region’s population continues to grow,  time-of-use electricity pricing becomes ever more likely. We may also see other policies that are already widespread elsewhere, such as property owners selling their solar production for cash, and carbon pricing driving up fossil-fueled electricity costs. 

You don’t have to look far; just turn your gaze south to California’s required solar power systems on all new homes and buildings, or its incentives for batteries, or its laws requiring utilities to shut off power during wildfire danger. 

All of this is on its way to you, with fire liability by utilities at the top of the list, casting increasing doubt on utility claims of uninterrupted electricity. Why wait for the lights to go out? A durable solar power system of your own, with batteries to provide power through fire-season outages, could be a smart investment that pays dividends for many years to come.