With utilities in two southern U.S. states resorting to planned outages to stop their equipment from sparking wildfires during dry, windy conditions, power users are looking for more reliable electricity—and solar and storage battery providers are stepping up to respond.
The conversation began with California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), bankrupted in part by its role in triggering the Camp Fire, the massive blaze that killed 85 people and literally burned down Paradise last summer. PG&E’s plan to “pre-emptively turn off power in parts of California to limit wildfire risks is creating business opportunities for alternative energy companies that say they can keep the lights on,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Home solar, battery, and fuel cell providers including Tesla Inc. and Bloom Energy Corporation are targeting customers in Northern California and appealing to state regulators to boost incentives for the rollout of their technology,” even though there’s some acknowledgement that off-grid options won’t be a universal solution to what the utility is calling “controlled blackouts”.
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And PG&E is not alone. Next door in Nevada, NV Energy is introducing a Public Safety Outage Management (PSOM) program in three areas it considers high-risk. “The new program has already elicited concern from local businesses,” Utility Dive reports, with three public meetings coming up this month to air those concerns. “Outages could last four to 12 hours, but NV Energy told customers they can expect 48 hours’ advance notice.”
While the utilities no doubt see controlled blackouts as a last resort—NV Energy is saying as much in its public outreach—Utility Dive says PG&E initiated its first cut-off in June, shutting down power to 22,700 customers in dried-out areas where wind speeds were expected to pick up.
While the risk of wildfires triggered by sparks from utility infrastructure gives context to those decisions, the outages still leave households and businesses without electricity. In Chico, California, just 14½ miles (23 kilometres) from the burned-out remains of Paradise, solar sales are breaking records, the Chico Enterprise-Record reports. “The fire exacerbated everything,” said Laura Thayne, sales administrator at Royal Heating and Aire.
The Enterprise-Record says solar sales have doubled in the last year, with this year’s figures through June exceeding the total for 2018. PG&E spokesperson Paul Moreno said the number of local customers on solar plans has grown 1,500% in less than a decade, from 271 in 2010 to 4,126 new installations in 2018 alone.
One factor is that solar permits are easier to get in Chico than in some other Butte County communities. Another is that “tons of customers are calling to say they’re fed up with PG&E,” Thayne said. And just as the Camp Fire drove the increase in newly-affordable solar installations, the prospect of power outages is spurring interest in battery storage.
“Decreasing costs before PG&E increases rates may also be a factor,” though “where one fits in the PG&E tiered system will often determine whether it is worth purchasing solar panels,” the Enterprise-Record notes, citing Thayne. “A ‘tier 1’ PG&E customer is often in a small home or rental and would not typically save money. It’s the ‘tier 2’ and high-usage surplus customers who face high bills in extreme months, especially in Chico’s hot summers, who have the most interest in making the transition—especially if they’re homeowners.”
People who make the switch can still sell their surplus power back to the utility, the paper adds. And they can take advantage of a 30% federal tax credit for solar equipment before the rate begins to decline next year.
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