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Why solar is seeing a boost during California's wildfires

Rob Nikolewski, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Business News

Widespread power shutoffs across the Golden State during peak wildfire season have spurred demand for what's called "solar-plus-storage" as a way for customers to keep their lights on.

"Calling it an 'uptick' would be an understatement," said Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Cinnamon Energy Systems, a Silicon Valley-based solar company. Cinnamon said the level of inquiries has more than doubled and his company "had just about the best month ever" in its seven-year history.

"There's a lot of people who said, 'I've been hesitant to put in solar and now I want to put in solar and a battery, too.' And there's a lot of people who have existing systems ... but now they want to add a battery."

California leads the nation in the number of rooftop solar installations, thanks to abundant sunshine and aggressive programs passed by state policymakers. But while solar panels can provide electricity when the grid is running, customers need battery storage systems to allow their residences to power themselves, at least for a time, when the lines are closed.

And that happened multiple times last month when investor-owned utilities deployed what is called "Public Safety Power Shutoffs" when high winds and weather conditions increase the risk of power equipment (such as fallen power lines) igniting a wildfire. Pacific Gas & Electric in recent weeks de-energized lines for more than 2 million people in its service territory in Northern and Central California.

For short-term outages, a single battery can power a typical home for about four to five hours without needing a recharge. For longer duration, multiple batteries can be employed. While pairing solar installations with batteries can work smoothly, they come at a price.

 

A single battery unit typically costs between $7,000 to $9,000, after counting the federal government's current 30% tax credit for solar.

For a homeowner looking to install both solar and batteries, Cinnamon said a robust system that includes installing an inverter that allows a solar system to act as its own "island" and operate when the grid is down can cost about $30,000 after federal tax incentives for a "medium-end" home that does not use much air conditioning or does not have a swimming pool (pool pumps use a lot of electricity).

Cinnamon said if the home already has a solar installation, adding a battery system would come to about $21,000 after the tax credit.

The California Solar & Storage Association, or CSSA, had lower estimates -- from $15,000 to $22,000 for solar plus storage and $5,000 to $10,000 to add storage to solar, after tax credits and rebates from the state's Self-Generation Incentive Program.

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