Severing ties with utilities isn't as easy as cutting the cable cord

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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 : In his garage is a 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 because 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, which 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 percent to 30 percent over the last two to three years. The cost of the batteries themselves has declined by about 60 percent during that time to about $425 per kilowatt-hour, he said.

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

In some places, living off-grid 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 and . 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 Association, 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 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 percent to 25 percent of his battery in reserve as backup while tapping the remainder to support his home or send to the .

"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."


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Aug 17, 2017
"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."


Grid connection will still be around for a while. But I think eventually - when battery technology becomes dirt cheap - we'll start to see appliances that harvest and save up the energy for an operation cycle (e.g. dishwasher, cooking range or washing machine) until needed. That'll be the day when we'll start seeing the grid disappear.

Aug 17, 2017
when battery technology becomes dirt cheap


IF battery technology becomes dirt cheap.

You forget that the minerals industry isn't able to supply enough lithium, cobalt, etc, as it is for all the applications that would need batteries, because the production output would have to increase more than 1000x to account for all the electric cars, grid energy storage, portable gadgets...

The low limit will become how cheap it is to reclaim materials from used batteries, which is currently much more expensive than mining for new ones, because the batteries have to be frozen with liquid nitrogen before they can be crushed safely.

Aug 17, 2017
(e.g. dishwasher, cooking range or washing machine)


It is already the case that you can install a storage boiler, heat it up with your own solar panels, and then use the hot water to run your dish washer or washing machine. It's just that the economics of doing so are not there - the grid is cheaper.


Aug 17, 2017
EVs with 60 to 100 kWh of storage, will enable many people to go off grid. Furthermore, a long duration local grid failure, such as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, will become less of a concern since you can drive to an EV charge station for a fill-up. Yes, there will be some local storage, using batteries designed to "normal" daily use cycle.

Aug 17, 2017
EVs with 60 to 100 kWh of storage, will enable many people to go off grid.


I don't think so. The average energy demand of a household - heating, AC, hot water, electricity - is between 16,000 - 26,000 kWh/year which is 40 - 70 kWh a day. (1.8 - 2.9 kW)

Even 100 kWh is not big enough to go completely off the grid - including the natural gas grid - and no, you don't get to cheat by hauling propane tanks or cords of wood in through the back door. Two rainy or cold days and you're out of power - and you also need to drive the car!

Besides, the car's batteries are not designed for such use. They run out of cycles in just couple years and have to be replaced if you drain them at that rate. That's the reason why the article quotes prices at $425 per kilowatt-hour, whereas EV manufacturers like Tesla quote at $150; it's a different chemistry that is designed to last longer.


Aug 17, 2017
IF battery technology becomes dirt cheap.

Since we're seeing about the same research push in batteries now that we did for solar panels 20 years ago - yeah. I expect them to become much cheaper eventually (especially with some of the other chemistries like lithium air or rechargeable zinc air where the capacity skyrockets which means that amount of batteries needed per application drops)

Furthermore, a long duration local grid failure, such as occurred with Hurricane Sandy, will become less of a concern

Makes sense. During such an emergency you probably won't be driving around a lot. I think the Japanese already pioneered this in one of their first EVs by actively marketing them as 'emergency backup' during/after an earthquake. While it won't last forver a 100kWh battery can tide you over a couple of days, easily. Googling for 'average household electricity per month' got me a figure of roughly 900kWh/month (US. Elsewhere in the first world that's 50-75% less) .

Aug 17, 2017
IF battery technology becomes dirt cheap
there is also the change in use that people will have to learn how to live with

the biggest problem people will have isn't the storage, but the use while recharging batteries: you will either need a dual system to use power from [a] while [b] charges the batteries or you will need to limit the use during recharging - this cannot be avoided because the more you use during charging the less you charge the batteries

this is where most people make their mistakes with PV's etc

the second most popular fail in this is energy drain: fans, electric motors, heating elements etc
this is hard to adjust to when you're used to the grid styled flip of a switch, always there mentality most people have

you can still have it, but it takes adjustment to how you use it

that adjustment is what scares most people off, especially when they go into it uneducated or falsely directed by wanna-be engineers with no real experience (gk)

Aug 17, 2017
I don't remember who said it. A physicist once explained why batteries are so crappy and can only be marginally improved.

If I remember correctly, he said "You can have a Universe with perfect batteries but no biological life. Or, you can have a Universe with biological life but always crappy batteries." So, welcome to my world!

He went on to say "If you want a better system for storing energy, efficiently and economically. We will need to invent an entirely new, radically different energy storage technology. That is compatible with biological life and the Fundamental Physics of this Universe."

Aug 20, 2017
Since we're seeing about the same research push in batteries now that we did for solar panels 20 years ago - yeah. I expect them to become much cheaper eventually


Don't confuse effort with success. Even if metal-air batteries have 10 improvement in material use, we'd still be more than 100 times out of capacity to produce the necessary minerals to supply all the applications that need batteries.

you will either need a dual system to use power from [a] while [b] charges the batteries or you will need to limit the use during recharging


That's actually very compatible with PV systems, because solar power has a poor capacity factor - to fit a household with enough panels to meet its total energy demands would cause such a high peak power output that you simply cannot use it all. The excess goes into the batteries.


Aug 20, 2017
Googling for 'average household electricity per month' got me a figure of roughly 900kWh/month (US. Elsewhere in the first world that's 50-75% less) .


That's misleading, since it includes peoples and countries that use gas, coal, oil and/or burn wood for much of their energy. It's completely daft to dodge over the energy storage issue by noting that people can still burn fossil fuels and pollute with smoky chimneys instead of actually using renewables.

100 kWh may be two days of backup when it's full, which it will become in the spring, and remain full all summer because you're producing more than you need - which means surplus that you cannot capture. Then in the fall when the days get shorter and the weather gets worse, you'll have many days when you need to tap into the battery a little bit, until a few weeks later it hits empty.

To get off the grid, you need a battery that is large enough to capture in the summer the excess that you lack in the winter.

Aug 20, 2017
Between 40-75% of a households' energy needs come from heating and hot water. A cubic meter of water can store 45 kWh of heat between 50-90 C, so a fridge sized boiler unit can in effect store 100 kWh of heat far cheaper than any electric battery. It's at least ten times cheaper than any battery and has 3-4 times the lifespan.

These boilers exist on the market with multi-fuel capabilities, with solar heat collectors, electric heating coils for PV, hookups for ground heat pumps, and gas/oil burners in the same unit so you're never out of power.

They're just not used because gas is still cheaper, and the subsidies are paid for pushing your renewable power into the grid instead of using it yourself.

Aug 20, 2017
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