“It was a pretty neat experience,” he said. “Part of the fun was that I don’t have to explain why we can’t turn the lamp on.”
Bryan is among thousands of Texans who have turned to solar power and battery storage, creating so-called microgrids, as a solution to blackouts. With a venture creating the same little power plants for apartment buildings, Texas has become a national leader in residential solar power installations.
From 2019 to 2020, small-scale solar capacity in Texas grew by 63 percent, to 1,093 megawatts from 670 megawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration. In the first three quarters of 2021, another 250 megawatts of residential solar were installed in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In last year’s third quarter alone, Texas ranked second behind California in the amount of power from new installations during the period, the industry’s Washington, D.C. trade group said.
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Surging demand for residential solar power in Texas after the February 2021 freeze put pressure on installers to keep up, said Abigail Hopper, president and CEO of the association. The race to buy new rooftop panels has slowed some, she said, but Texas remains among the top three states for new installations. And the shrinking price of solar cells will help support its growing popularity, Hopper said.
“I think as more and more Americans really struggle with the impact of severe weather — everything from fires, the cold, hurricanes, droughts — and see the impacts on power and power outages, you’re going to continue to see folks looking for resiliency,” Hopper said.
A house as its own ‘microgrid’
Rooftop solar systems and other residential generators like those powered by diesel or batteries can create microgrids to power an individual house or be linked to others in a neighborhood. They can operate as part of the main power grid — like the one managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas that almost collapsed last year — or they can disconnect and be managed autonomously during a power outage.
The flip of a switch can disconnect a microgrid from the larger utility, says Stephen Bayne, department chair of electrical and computer engineering at Texas Tech University. It can be as simple as a breaker in a garage or a computer system that automatically disconnects from the grid when there’s a disruption. More advanced microgrid systems, sometimes known as virtual power plants, can track usage, generation and battery storage across multiple buildings. It also prevents the microgrid’s power from flowing to the wider grid during emergencies.
“So let’s say the grid has to turn off for some reason, say in Houston you had flooding and part of grid is underwater, but not a certain community,” Bayne said. “That area could still lose power for days, but if the community had a microgrid, it could disconnect and use a diesel generator, battery storage, solar — it could keep grid going, or at least keep critical loads going for a while.”
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While connected to the wider system, some microgrids can reduce strain on the utility grid, Bayne said, even when power is flowing normally.
“Think about it: If every household has an electric vehicle and that has to charge at night, especially in rural areas, is the infrastructure ready for that? What if a natural disaster comes through and wipes out part of that infrastructure and people’s cars can’t work?” he said. “Microgrids could handle some of that, and it’s cheaper sometimes to build distributed generation than run new transmission lines.”
The power of batteries
For solar installations, that kind of resiliency requires large-capacity batteries that are charged during the day and provide power at night.
But the batteries became scarce last year amid limited stockpiles of mined lithium and the soaring demand for electric vehicles. Without storage options, some potential clients of residential solar company Sunnova backed out of deals, said John Berger, founder and CEO of the Houston-based company.
“You can imagine if you have a customer saying, ‘I’d love to get a battery and solar,’ and you have to say, ‘Well actually we can’t get batteries,’ it limited sales severely,” Berger said. “Now we’re quite optimistic and are seeing a further increase in solar sales.”
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No longer written off
Until now, the vast majority of the nation’s solar system sales were to homeowners, since leases usually prevent renters from installing panels on their roofs. But PearlX, which is based in Virginia, and the Israeli firm Solar Edge announced last month they aim to provide rooftop solar to 1,300 renters across Texas, starting with about 10 at the 2410 Waugh Apartments in Montrose.
PearlX will pay the landlord to lease roof space for the solar panels, batteries and other equipment provided by Solar Edge, and tenants who tap these virtual power plants for electricity will pay a fee split between PearlX and the landlord. Tenants won’t need to provide credit scores to be eligible, just proof of paid electric bills, said Michael Huerta, CEO of PearlX.
“Renters have been blocked out of solar, but we’re trying to change that,” he said. “The tenant experience is so important. we have to make sure they all feel good about this, not just when the lights go out.”
In addition to the protection renters will have during power outages, PearlX’s “Project TexFlex” also will help them slash their electric bills without the large upfront costs of the system.
For instance, Bryan, paid about $66,000 for his solar and battery storage system, though a federal tax credit it will cut the total cost to about $40,000. But, he said, his electric bill in December was $5, compared with about $200 a year earlier. If the solar unit produces more electricity than Bryan and his family can use, it will send that power to ERCOT’s grid and he’ll receive a credit from his electricity retailer.
Bryan estimates that it will take about 9 years for the system to pay for itself, but he said the system gives him peace of mind. He no longer worries whether he’ll have power when the weather gets bad.
“We’re in Houston, we get a lot of storms and power goes out all the time,” Bryan said. “And it’s doing some good for the world, making all these kilowatt hours from the sun for free and not from burning carbon. It felt really cool to make a good contribution to the world and to ourselves.”