Off-Grid Power Solutions for Emergency Power Generation: Renewables to the Rescue

Finding green tech solutions after Hurricane Sandy, CleanEdison Associate Comly Wilson’s report “Emergency Energy” details ways renewable energy systems can deliver resilient and reliable power production during blackout and emergency situations.

| November 16, 2012

Analyzing Distributed Energy – Living Off the Grid in Emergency Situations

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people all over the east coast of the U.S. are asking themselves what they can do to lessen their reliance on centralized energy systems for their electricity, heat and transportation needs. As climate change brings the potential for more intense and frequent extreme weather events, the desire for alternative energy options is becoming more prevalent. Few experts doubt that the energy regime of the future will bear little resemblance to our current system, but what technologies are available and economically viable today?

CleanEdison explored the practicality of a few of the leading candidates and found that today’s technology can provide all the electricity, heat and transportation needs during a power grid failure. However, continued investment is needed to make these technologies truly economically viable for mainstream application.

Grid-Tied Emergency Solar Panels with Battery Backup

Solar proponents have long envisioned the day when residential solar systems could truly be mini power plants. If the home used its own electricity when it could, sold excess electricity to the grid when it wanted, and stood on its own when it needed, installations would spring up across the nation. Initially, PV systems were installed for many off-grid applications. However, according to the International Renewable Energy Council (IREC),  in the last decade, and especially in the last several years, grid-connected installations have become the largest sector for PV installations. Most of these installations are on the customer-side of the meter, although the last three years have seen an explosion of utility scale systems. On the other hand, off-grid systems have become such a small section of the industry that data on them is generally not counted in IREC and EIA reports.

As impressive as the growth of solar PV installations have been, grid-tied systems are only as reliable as the grid itself; without a functioning grid, they produce no energy and the dream of residential energy independence goes out the window. But large scale disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy or the Fukishima nuclear disaster in Japan have a way of focusing attention back on the idea of mixing grid-tied solar PV with battery back-up on the residential level.

Today, solar installers are willing to provide this type of system, but there is almost unanimous agreement that it is not worth it. This is because the cost of current batteries adds about 40 percent to the initial cost of the system and almost doubles the price over the lifetime of the system. Furthermore, while the panels themselves will last 25-30 years, most batteries on the market will only last 5-7 years before needing to be replaced. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the 30 percent federal tax credit for residential renewable energy does not cover storage systems and batteries. 

Some companies haven’t given up hope, finding creative ways to take advantage of incentives that do cover energy storage systems and combining those with solar installations. The most prominent example of this is the partnership between Tesla and Solar City which, according to IDC Energy Insights, have filed more than 70 installation permits in the Pacific Gas & Electric territory of California, most of which are 5 kw residential projects.

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