Go off the grid? It’s not that easy

Cost makes it tough to leave your util­ity. Also, there are risks.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Ivan Penn

If dis­as­ter ever struck, Joe Fleis­chmann could keep the lights, re­frig­er­a­tor and big-screen TV run­ning in his Or­ange County home, even if the power com­pany went dark.

Fleis­chmann is an early adopter of home en­ergy stor­age: In his garage is a bat­tery strong enough to help keep the es­sen­tials in op­er­a­tion.

The home of the for­mer Los An­ge­les County sher­iff ’s deputy sports a full suite of eco-friendly power equip­ment — so­lar pan­els on his roof as well as bat­tery stor­age and an elec­tric ve­hi­cle charg­ing sta­tion in his garage. But even with all his pow­er­ful tools, Fleis­chmann still can’t cut the power cord with South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son.

Sev­er­ing ties with the cen­tral­ized power sys­tem — go­ing off the grid — might be a dream of sur­vival­ists and some con­sumers, but the re­al­ity is dif­fi­cult to achieve. The cost of bat­ter­ies large enough to power air con­di­tion­ers, a washer, dryer and other big en­ergy guz­zlers would im­peril most home­own­ers’ bud­gets.

“As far as be­ing com­pletely off-grid, it’s kind of a for­eign thought to me be-

cause you’ve al­ways had to rely on the util­i­ties,” Fleis­chmann said. “We could do that, but at what cost?”

Even the leader in the res­i­den­tial elec­tric­ity stor­age in­dus­try — and sup­plier of Fleis­chmann’s $26,000 bat­tery sys­tem — doesn’t see con­sumers de­fect­ing from their util­i­ties.

“True off-grid is ridicu­lous,” said Blake Richetta, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Son­nen Inc., who over­sees the Ger­man bat­tery maker’s U.S. arm that is based in North Hol­ly­wood. Son­nen has about 18,000 res­i­den­tial sys­tems, pri­mar­ily in Ger­many and Italy.

Not only is it costly to turn your home into a vir­tual power plant, Richetta said, but it makes the con­sumer’s home an is­land that would be un­able to tap the cen­tral power sys­tem if the off-grid op­er­a­tion fails.

And go­ing it alone negates a more global ben­e­fit: Res­i­den­tial and com­mer­cial power sys­tems can pro­vide sup­port for the elec­tric grid and util­ity com­pa­nies.

“En­ergy stor­age adds value, sig­nif­i­cant value, to the grid op­er­a­tor,” said Richetta, a for­mer North Amer­i­can sales man­ager for Tesla Inc., which has a bat­tery line of its own.

For in­stance, as con­sumers add so­lar pan­els and bat­tery stor­age, com­bined with in­creas­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, de­mand de­creases for elec­tric­ity from tra­di­tional util­ity com­pa­nies. That helps util­i­ties avoid con­struc­tion of new fos­sil fuel plants such as nat­u­ral gas fa­cil­i­ties.

“We are es­sen­tially help­ing the grid do things it could never do be­fore in a cheaper and cleaner way,” Richetta said.

And al­though Fleis­chmann’s sys­tem comes with a high price tag, the cost has been drop­ping sub­stan­tially, mak­ing it po­ten­tially more af­ford­able for av­er­age con­sumers in the next few years.

Ravi Mang­hani, di­rec­tor of en­ergy stor­age for GTM Re­search, said the in­stalled price of res­i­den­tial sys­tems has dropped 25% to 30% over the last two to three years. The cost of the bat­ter­ies them­selves has de­clined by about 60% dur­ing that time to about $425 per kilo­watthour, he said.

And con­sumers can ben­e­fit from state and fed­eral in­cen­tives that can re­duce the over­all cost, Mang­hani said.

In some places, liv­ing of­f­grid makes more sense than in oth­ers.

In the United States, that place is Hawaii, which has the na­tion’s high­est elec­tric­ity rates at roughly twice as much as what Cal­i­for­ni­ans pay per kilo­watt-hour. Be­cause Hawaii must im­port fuel for its power plants, costs run high.

Hawaii’s higher util­ity tab makes it a sim­pler de­ci­sion for con­sumers to spring for so­lar pan­els and bat­tery stor­age. And that po­ten­tial sales op­por­tu­nity has drawn the at­ten­tion of en­ergy com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Son­nen, Tesla, Sun­run and Blue Planet, which are of­fer­ing so­lar and bat­tery pack­ages sim­i­lar to Fleis­chmann’s sys­tem but at var­i­ous sizes.

But for other places, even rel­a­tively high-cost Cal­i­for­nia, it can be dif­fi­cult to get a deal that in­cludes stor­age for less than what con­sumers are pay­ing their util­ity com­pany for elec­tric­ity.

“You’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to save enough money to make that work,” said Ron Nichols, pres­i­dent of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Edi­son, which serves about 15 mil­lion peo­ple through 5 mil­lion res­i­den­tial and busi­ness ac­counts. “Right now it doesn’t pen­cil out.”

Nichols ac­knowl­edges that the equa­tion might im­prove even­tu­ally for res­i­den­tial con­sumers.

“Bat­tery tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to get bet­ter over time,” he said. “And its costs are go­ing to come down.”

Nichols said he sees some of the great­est, im­me­di­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties in com­mer­cial stor­age sys­tems such as at schools, large of­fice build­ings and other com­mer­cial en­ti­ties.

Com­mer­cial cus­tomers pay a pre­mium for us­ing elec­tric­ity at times of peak de­mand. A bat­tery can re­duce com­mer­cial cus­tomers’ use of elec­tric­ity from the util­ity com­pany dur­ing those pe­ri­ods and ul­ti­mately save money. In ad­di­tion, they can con­tract with the power com­pany to al­low the util­ity to draw elec­tric­ity from the bat­tery when the elec­tric grid might need it.

“It’s not some sil­ver bul­let for ev­ery­thing,” Nichols said. “But we’re find­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties. They’re go­ing to be very help­ful for the grid in the fu­ture.”

Ber­nadette Del Chiaro, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia So­lar En­ergy In­dus­tries Assn., agrees that bat­tery prices are still a bit high on the res­i­den­tial side. But she ar­gues that just as com­mer­cial cus­tomers can as­sist the elec­tric grid with their bat­ter­ies, so can res­i­den­tial con­sumers by stay­ing con­nected to their util­i­ties and the wider elec­tric grid.

“The so­lar and stor­age in­dus­try are re­ally, ac­tu­ally com­mit­ted to a green grid,” Del Chiaro said. “It re­ally is seen as mak­ing the grid stronger and more re­silient, as op­posed to ev­ery­body an is­land unto them­selves.”

Del Chiaro said util­ity com­pa­nies ben­e­fit from the ar­gu­ment that so­lar plus stor­age is too ex­pen­sive for res­i­den­tial cus­tomers be­cause they re­tain con­trol of elec­tric­ity and keep prices high for con­sumers. But work­ing to­ward em­pow­er­ing con­sumers will ul­ti­mately re­duce their costs, she said.

“What we’re try­ing to push for is some­thing that truly trans­forms the mar­ket,” Del Chiaro said. “Ev­ery­body just thinks so­lar and stor­age are toys for the rich. The util­i­ties run around Sacra­mento and call so­lar plus stor­age the ‘Cadil­lac class.’ ”

But if util­i­ties are al­lowed to set the agenda for how the elec­tric sys­tem de­vel­ops, she said, “we’ll keep prices re­ally high that way.”

Fleis­chmann, who re­tired from the Sher­iff ’s De­part­ment af­ter a back in­jury, in­stalled a 6.5-kilo­watt so­lar ar­ray on his Brea home three years ago. He added the Son­nen bat­tery sys­tem last year.

Fleis­chmann thought the Son­nen sys­tem, which looks like a stor­age cab­i­net in his garage, pro­vided a good match for his home. The sys­tem is ex­pand­able, un­like some bat­ter­ies, and can be op­er­ated from a com­puter and smart­phone.

“I think it ac­tu­ally looks pretty cool,” Fleis­chmann, 46, said.

His goal was to save money on the elec­tric­ity con­sumed by his fam­ily of five as well as to pro­vide backup power in an emer­gency. He wasn’t think­ing off-grid.

But he pur­chased a large bat­tery — 12 kilo­watts, while the typ­i­cal home sys­tem, Nichols said, is about 4 kilo­watts and enough to last about four hours. Fleish­mann chose a large sys­tem with the ben­e­fit of a state re­bate that picked up about a third of the cost of the bat­tery.

Fleis­chmann keeps about 20% to 25% of his bat­tery in re­serve as backup while tap­ping the re­main­der to sup­port his home or send to the elec­tric grid.

“If the grid goes down, we would still have a source of elec­tric­ity,” Fleis­chmann said. “I think with the pop­u­lar­ity of the sys­tem and as the costs come down, more peo­ple will be able to in­vest in them.”

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

JOE FLEIS­CHMANN, who is still an SCE cus­tomer, checks the panel for the so­lar ar­ray at his Brea home.

Pho­to­graphs by Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

JOE FLEIS­CHMANN’S aim was to save money on the elec­tric­ity con­sumed by his fam­ily of five in Brea as well as to pro­vide backup power in an emer­gency.

FLEIS­CHMANN, whose goal never was to go off the grid, had a $26,000, 12-kilo­watt bat­tery stor­age sys­tem in­stalled in his home’s garage, above.

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