Few Solar-Powered Homes Are Truly Off the Grid

Quest: Solar

Why So Few Solar Converts Actually Make it Off the Grid

It’s true that a large enough solar panel system will produce as much or even more power than you need, and can offset your SDG&E bills. But you’ll need more than just solar panels to actually cut the cord. “The price of independence is very high,” says one solar company leader.

Many solar converts brag that they’re going to cut their ties with San Diego Gas & Electric and go off the grid.

Few actually get there.

It’s true that a large enough solar panel system will produce as much or even more power than you need, and can offset your SDG&E bills entirely. But you’ll need more than just solar panels to actually cut the cord.

Going off the grid means producing all your own energy, including supplying your own backup power when your solar panels don’t produce enough to support your needs rather than relying on a utility, like SDG&E.

Most people end up doing something akin to Off-the-Grid Lite. They aren’t paying SDG&E anymore but they’re still relying on it for backup.

Going completely off the grid requires more cash, more equipment and for the average solar customer, a company willing to help.

Many solar businesses aren’t interested in selling an off-the-grid option. Sullivan Solar Power and Stellar Solar, two of the region’s largest solar installers, won’t take on those jobs.

“It’s one of those things it sounds like a great idea because the power company isn’t in charge of you anymore but the reality is the price of independence is very high,” Stellar co-founder Michael Powers said.

Even companies open to helping folks go off the grid aren’t seeing many customers go through with it.

Solare Energy co-founder John Davis said his company has helped only two customers go off the grid though dozens more have expressed interest.

Davis and other solar executives say customers often change their minds when they learn going off the grid will cost them at least twice as much as a regular system.

“Anybody who’s doing this for financial reasons will look at this and see it doesn’t make any financial sense and won’t do it,” Davis said.

It’s not clear how many San Diego County residents have actually gone off grid. SDG&E only monitors those who remain on the grid, and it estimates about 13 percent of its solar customers produce more power than they need.

The reason so few people have cut ties with SDG&E are simple. The additional parts, namely, the battery backup necessary to disconnect from SDG&E, aren’t cheap (or simple to hook up) and solar companies are more interested in pushing the billing arrangement that currently makes going solar such an environmental and financial win.

That deal, known as net energy metering, allows solar customers to immediately see reduced or even nonexistent energy bills from SDG&E once they install panels.

Many of these customers who zero out their bills still rely on SDG&E’s grid for power when the sun goes down and their panels aren’t producing power. The bill credits they receive for the energy their systems produce simply eclipse what SDG&E charges them – an arrangement SDG&E says can make customers forget that they’re still reliant on the grid.

“(Net energy metering) creates this false sense of being off the grid because of the accounting method,” said Jennifer Ramp, an SDG&E spokeswoman.

For that reason, the utility has pushed energy rate reforms it says are necessary to ensure solar customers pay for their use of the grid.

The calculus could change with the advent of a new net metering system and potentially, improvements in battery technology and major price drops. (Even the highly anticipated Tesla Powerwall batteries – which some predicted would allow more solar customers to affordably go off the grid, or at least be less reliant on utility power – apparently don’t work well for rooftop solar customers and some solar executives have beefs with Musk’s claims about them.)

For now, only folks with an independent streak and a willingness to spend more, or an inability to connect to the grid in the first place, are truly going off the grid.

Energy activist Bill Powers (no relation to Stellar’s Michael Powers), an engineer who’s testified against SDG&E and other utilities in state Public Utilities Commission proceedings, is willing to spend more now to further the off-the-grid cause.

He installed gear that helped take his University Heights home off SDG&E’s grid this February.

If he were still connected to SDG&E, Powers would’ve needed solar panels and an inverter, the tool that transforms solar power into energy that everyday appliances use.

But Powers’ system requires more stuff. This is Powers’ inverter system, which transforms his solar power into energy his home and electric vehicle can use:

Bill Powers solar: inverter

And two sets of batteries provide backup:

Bill Powers solar: batteries

This generator controls Powers’ backup generator. It also allows him to switch back onto the grid if he chooses.

Powers solar: generator control panel

Powers had to install some piping to connect his solar system with the backup generator in his backyard:

Bill Powers solar: pipes

 

This gear set Powers back about $40,000. And even that was at a discount, since he did some of his own installation work and paid for his gear upfront rather than financing it with a loan or lease.

Powers views his investment as a demonstration project. He hopes solar companies and others who may be interested in going off the grid can learn from his experience.

“I wanted to see: What are the hoops do you have to jump through to go off the grid in an urban environment?” Powers said.

One big one is a loud and unattractive backup generator that neighbors and others could find unsightly and annoying.

So Powers had a cream-colored enclosure built around his generator that got his wife’s approval but added to his costs.

Powers solar: generator

So far, Powers said things have gone smoothly. He’s been able to make the investment pencil out better by charging his electric car with his system, though that also requires more batteries.

Yet he’s quick to acknowledge the setup won’t work for everyone. He’s optimistic that’ll change in in coming years.

“The challenge is economic,” he said. “Anybody can do this if they have the desire to do it and sufficient funds to front for the hardware.”

Powers photos by Lisa Halverstadt.

This is part of our quest on whether solar will pay off for San Diego. Check out our previous post, Some Homeowners Looking to Move Must Deal With a Change of PACE, here.

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