Brentan Alexander, Ph.D.

Scientist / Entrepreneur / Engineer

Dark Thoughts: Solar is Useless for Ice Cream Lovers

The most surprising thing about this power outage is how loud it is. As I write this, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) has temporarily turned off the power to as many as 3 million people across northern California, and the sound of countless consumer-grade gasoline generators is echoing throughout the valley. You’ve likely heard about PG&E’s actions since it made international headlines (to offer just a sample from The GuardianThe Economist, and Financial Times). The effect is being acutely felt by the NER team; we all live within the PG&E service territory. 

For myself, that means I’m on hour 30 without a utility hookup. My garage door is stuck, laundry is piling up, and I’m reminding myself not to open the freezer by applying tape to the handle with the words ‘DO NOT OPEN’ scribbled in sharpie. It’s a failing strategy: I’ve accidentally peeked inside twice. But I’m not in the dark. Outside, my 15-year old Toyota Prius with 150,000 miles is happily running a small DC-AC inverter, kicking on the engine as needed to keep the battery topped up, and providing the house with lights, a few working outlets, and power for the internet.

It’s an absurd situation, but one I’m reasonably well equipped to understand and handle. Working in the insurance industry where I think often about risk makes me wonder if these shut offs are really helping reduce fire risk, or just reducing PG&E’s exposure. On the one hand, the vast majority of large fires in California over the last few years have been caused by utility equipment (burning over a half-million acres since 2000). De-energizing lines surely reduces the risk of utility-sparked fires dramatically. And yet, there are now a large number of generators in operation, each manually filled from gas canisters. How many of these systems are properly wired to the house and up to code? (My Macgyver Prius generator sure isn’t.) A common solution to a lack of electric lights is also to literally light fires, albeit small controlled ones (ok: candles). Surely the uptick in candle usage increases the risk of an accidental fire. And then there’s the separate issues of deaths caused by offline medical equipment, or the loss of phone power to report other local emergencies. I have yet to see a detailed analysis of this risk tradeoff. Perhaps it’s good to trade the risk of (A) remotely started fires in rugged terrain from large power lines with (B) fires started in populated areas (where they’re more likely, perhaps, to be caught early and extinguished?). I do not know the answers. All that is certain is that this action lowers financial risk for PG&E, on the backs of financial losses (e.g. spoiled food, lost business) of their customers. 

I brought this risk tradeoff question up with a neighbor, and he quickly pivoted to a different but related point: how much reliable electricity is taken for granted and how little the average person knows about how it works and how it’s delivered. He was primarily talking about his frustrations with his solar system. Across my neighborhood, countless homes have gleaming panels on the roofs, some coupled with shiny battery packs mounted on the side of the house. All of these houses currently lack power. My neighbor simply didn’t know that solar is useless without a working electric grid, and for the folks with batteries, I doubt those owners understood that most of their inverters were not designed to island during a blackout. For my neighbor, I could sense his exasperation that this panel on his roof, which can generate electricity, somehow can’t power his home. A discussion on alternating vs. direct current, load matching, and frequency regulation was met with a blank stare and shake of the head. 

My hunch is that this experience will lead more people who currently lack solar to seek to install it (especially with the imminent step-down in the investment tax credit). I wonder how many of those installs will be done with the latest generation hardware (enabling the house-sized nanogrid), and how many installs will instead be the usual setup that only allows for power when PG&E keeps the street energized. 

That leads me to another question: these household systems have been built around a particular financial story; will it hold up? The utility death-spiral, wherein more and more consumers put solar on their roofs and therefore lower utility revenues—all without lower O&M costs to maintain miles and miles of utility lines—has been explained in exhaustive detail for nearly a decade. But the sudden bankruptcy of PG&E raises the distinct possibility that the current rate structure will be reshaped to ensure the financial viability of the utility while funding the repair and replacement of the ageing and failing infrastructure causing this whole mess. The more the utility bill shifts to distribution charges instead of use charges, the less the home-solar array will payoff.

For now, there are just questions and accusations. Should I point my finger at PG&E, climate change, or the inverse condemnation doctrine? (A recent article by Micheal Shellenberger broke this down well.) Does it even matter? None of that blame is going to get someone to replace my lost pint of rocky road.