This op-ed is part of a series published by the Opinion section of The Dallas Morning News to explore ideas and policies to boost electrical reliability. Find the full series here: Keep the lights on.
It’s time to forget about the power grid. Literally.
The endless studies and accusations about the failings and risks of the Texas network, which have accomplished practically nothing, ignore the obvious solution: get out of the network. Instead of waiting for utilities and the government to come up with mediocre band-aids for the centralized power system, Texans can take matters into their own hands. By going big with built-in solar power, battery storage, and a propane generator, homes can ditch the grid altogether.
To be clear, this is not conventional distributed energy. In all cases, solar companies interconnect home systems to the grid and export electricity for credits on the homeowner’s bill. Battery storage can provide a few hours of backup power, but is primarily deployed to help households use the grid at optimal times.
Going off the grid is a completely different ballgame. This involves calling the power company and telling them that you want to cancel service.
That sound you hear is utility executives losing their minds.
Even if you choose your own retail electricity supplier or have solar panels, you have no choice but who owns the power lines in your home. As long as you’re connected to those poles and wires, the utility is making money. It has been a big business over the last century.
The Bell System of companies also enjoyed monopoly advantages. Since everyone needed a landline, it was good business to operate a telephone network. Until that is no longer the case.
The analogy between landlines and cellphones is good, but probably underestimates the potential for rapid change. When Ma Bell first felt she was in trouble, mobile telecommunications was still in its infancy. The enabling technology here is mature. This can quickly scale beyond current DIY one-off efforts. By combining solar power, storage and a generator, it is not only possible to disconnect from the grid, it can be simple.
It won’t be cheap, just yet. Disrupting entrenched industries never is. Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, cost six figures. With innovation and scale, however, costs have come down. The same will happen with off-grid homes.
The other sound you hear is environmentalists shouting that we can’t use fossil fuels anymore. It’s a virtuous idea: the production of electricity with natural gas pollutes the air. In utopia, we could power everything with renewable energy. Unfortunately, the laws of physics do not bend to our wishes. In almost every situation, 100% renewable energy just isn’t practical yet.
On the other hand, even if climate change is not an urgent problem for you, generators are not the solution either. They are noisy and difficult to maintain, especially when used for more than two days in a row.
This is where the integration of solar and storage comes in. My company calculates that most integrated off-grid systems, properly designed, would use the propane gas generator less than 5% of the time. And there’s more: as homes electrify their heating needs, disconnecting from the power grid will also mean ditching the natural gas grid.
The resilience of the electrical grid is more valuable than is generally recognized. While the focus is on weather-related events that will increasingly strain the grid, man-made blackouts could be even more devastating.
Last year’s ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline caused fuel shortages and lines of gas stations, but it’s just as easy to take down a power grid. A cyberattack on control systems could cut power for weeks. Someone with nothing more than a shotgun could shoot substations and cripple the network. According to a recent study by the Department of Homeland Security, extremists “have developed credible and specific plans to attack electrical infrastructure.”
None of this will be easy. To begin with, mass electricity generation and distribution is needed for buildings and high-intensity industries. We can’t just completely leave the grid. But with homes that cut the cord no longer drawing electricity, the grid would be less strained for those who need it. This should be good news for network managers.
There’s also a critical question regarding the net worth of wealthy homeowners exiting the grid: Won’t low-income residents be stuck with the bill to maintain the system? If nothing changes, the answer is yes.
But wait a second. If homes are disconnected from the grid, we won’t need the same level of infrastructure (and associated tariffs). And the gospels don’t say: electric utilities will make money, on every investment for every infrastructure, forever.
It’s a company. If they’ve misjudged the coming movement of off-grid homes and we don’t need as much traditional utility infrastructure, that’s their problem, not ours. It’s basically a foreign language to them, but utilities should familiarize themselves with the term “lose money”.
A common framework — how we help vulnerable communities and render public services whole; let’s make it a win-win! – is nonsense. It also has a personal resonance. After Hurricane Maria in 2017, I was horrified by our lack of response for the people of Puerto Rico, millions of whom were without power for months.
The monopoly grid and utility was (and still is) dysfunctional for the island and its vulnerable communities. And yet the widely accepted solution was to fix the utility, then have the utility pay for the grid upgrades with some solar power, and then, I guess, you’d be fine.
I had enough of it. Although I had built a career on utility and grid scale projects, I focused on distributed energy. I couldn’t keep watching centralized networks fail, hoping that some magic combination of government oversight, subsidy, or regulatory intervention would turn the tide.
More than four years after Maria and 14 months after the Texas freeze, there’s a lot of unrest, but utilities and governments are still doing nothing more than keep their wheels turning.
For most Texans, it’s time to say: Enough already. Forget the grid.
Sam Brooks is founder and CEO of Starfish Electric. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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