Going Solar: My 12 months-Lengthy Quest to Get Off the Grid

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Going Solar: My Year-Long Quest to Get Off the Grid

In addition to Like everyone else, we Californians struggled with the Covid-19 pandemic and this year had another crisis to deal with that you may have heard of: the fire season.

When PG&E – the utility that serves the northern two-thirds of the state – first announced in October 2019 that it would introduce deliberate power outages in its service area as a stopgap measure against the annual threat of forest fires, the talk in my household was likely one that became one in all California repeated. “If so, we’ll move,” my wife insisted. Her words were deadly serious that I knew I should suppress my instincts for laughing.

Soon after, PG&E kept its promise. Our house was without electricity for four days and we were lucky. Others across the state were powerless for over a week, ultimately affecting around 3 million people. Of course, California isn’t the only place where power stutters. Storms regularly turn off power in the northeast. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left many customers without power for weeks.

PG&E later said this year’s blackouts will be “smarter, smaller and shorter”. So far, that has been true even though around 87,000 people had their power outage in September and 100,000 were shut down in October. PG&E has estimated that these cuts could be common in the fall months for another 10 years – all before Covid-19 changed everything. As a result, our conversation last winter quickly changed from pressing hands to seeking solutions. Nobody really wanted to move, which led us to Plan B: If PG&E turns the power off, why don’t we just make our own?

Our old friend the sun

The obvious solution was to consider solar panels, right? Prices have come down and efficiency increased, and it made financial sense to consider solar power even if the state wasn’t constantly on fire. When I looked into this, I quickly realized that solar would not help in the event of a power failure: paradoxically, solar panels will not work when PG&E is offline. Why? Because when lines are switched off, this is done for safety reasons: to prevent electricity from flowing through them. One of the great things about solar power at home is that you can bring extra power back to the grid. When solar houses send their excess electricity back through the transmission cables, you will see the problem.

There is a workaround to install a backup battery. Your solar system is charging a fat battery in your garage. When PG&E goes offline, you can draw power directly from the battery. Your solar panels can even keep charging it while you’re using it. In addition, batteries solve one of the sun’s big problems by giving you the ability to produce your own electricity at night. Instead of having to pull out of the mains in the dark, you can draw power from the battery and top it up the next day when the sun is shining. You call this energy resilience – you wean your home from being dependent on the grid.

Before I knew it, my wife and I had a real conversation about whether it would be worth investing in solar and battery backup. Not only would we survive days of blackouts more easily, but we would also reduce our electricity bills for the rest of the year. The typical payback period for hybrid solar and battery systems is usually around seven to ten years, depending on numerous variables that sounded reasonable.

Soon I was talking to my bank about a home equity line of credit and it was the first time in my career that I took out a loan to write an article.

Let’s talk about economics

I reached out to Electriq Power – better known, Tesla didn’t return my calls – and the San Leandro, Calif. Company said it was a game to work together in one piece. The PowerPod hardware includes both a cabinet of lithium-ion batteries and an inverter, a device that converts DC power from the solar panels or battery into AC power that you can use at home or sell back to the mains. Electriq doesn’t do the solar panels (or the installation) so it put me in touch with Symmetric Energy, an installer in San Rafael, California who can manage the job. The vast majority of my business in the following months would be done with Symmetric, and that makes sense. Most homeowners who install solar or battery power never need to speak to the hardware manufacturer.

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