Businesses see storing energy while the sun shines as key to California power shut-off strategy

After three years of wildfires and now, blackouts, more and more business owners are looking to the power of the sun and storage of a battery pack for peace of mind.

“I tell people if they have solar, think about adding batteries,” said Aron Moore, owner and president of Sun First Solar of San Rafael. “Many of our farm, winery and grocery store customers are already using solar and portable generators if needed, but today everyone is talking about storage.”

For a few weeks or months, renting a generator might still be the choice. But for longer cycles, he says, “Solar with dedicated battery backup is the future. It's what we all have to do.

“We're getting panic calls and have been forced to turn others away. Sun First is booked solid through the end of 2019, but we're taking orders for next year.”

Solar tech innovators

Sonoma County is home to a number of solar technology innovators, including Enphase and Staubli.

For Enphase, its new Ensemble family of energy storage systems for residential solar energy storage including Encharge 10 (with 10 kilowatt-hour capacity all-in-one AC-coupled storage system with 12 grid forming microinverters) and Encharge 3 (a 3.3 kilowatt-hour AC-coupled storage system with four embedded grid-forming microinverters). These products are designed to allow users to start small and add incremental capacity as needed.

With offices in Petaluma, Enphase is already taking orders for its Ensemble product line, including its Enpower Smart Switch, a microgrid interconnection device that automatically transitions the system from grid power to backup power in the event of a grid failure. In addition, Enphase offers its IQ Combiner Series to consolidate interconnection equipment in a single enclosure, and IQ Series microinverters for Ensemble technology.

The company's wireless communications kit enables direct communication and system monitoring between Encharge, Enpower and IQ Envoy using 2.4 gigahertz and 915 megahertz frequencies in parallel to ensure reliability. The kit is connected to one of the USB ports on the IQ Envoy.

Windsor-based Staubli Electrical Connectors, formerly Multi-Contact USA, manufactures photovoltaic connectors for solar panels and offers battery energy storage systems.

The firm has 1 billion solar connectors and panel receptacles installed around the globe along with 217.17 gigawatts of solar panels successfully connected to date. Staubli has been in the MC PV connector manufacturing business since 1996.

Scott Olson, director of western state government regulatory affairs for Centrica Business Solutions, said a firm's historic power needs, whether to break from the gird or continue to explore options are some of the options facing businesses.

He noted that since 2010, solar costs have been reduced by 70% and batteries are following a similar trajectory, meaning next generation products could be even more cost effective with increased demand and economies of scale. He described some advantages and disadvantages of a few energy options.

Energy option pros and cons

Solar is good if there is enough sun to consistently generate several hours of backup power that can be stored in batteries for later use at night, in winter or on cloudy days - or when grid power fails.

Large capacity standalone generators are expensive and work only as long as you have fuel. Additionally, there are maintenance, fuel supply, system management and permitting issues to address. Legislative changes and California Air Resources Board decisions also have placed restrictions on the use of diesel generators to maintain air quality.

Fuel cells offer cleaner power generation with natural gas but are costly and do not size well in smaller versions. They also have permitting issues.

Other options include waste digesters, combined heat and power systems, and similar technologies.

“Companies have more options now when it comes to taking energy needs into their own hands. With so many economical and environmentally viable choices that work, management has the freedom and flexibility to stabilize the firm's energy continuity future,” Olson added.

Energy self-sufficiency

Living off the grid is not for everyone, but some want to go it alone. Rody Jonas and Christine Hawthorne took this step and found that it paid off during the recent Kincaid fire. Their home is in the hills near The Geysers where they installed three essential elements - solar, battery storage and a generator - along with a dish for Internet connectivity. When the fire approached, Rody Jonas fought the blaze all night using well water, drawn by an electric pump powered by energy storage, that kept the fire from reaching the house.

He is the owner and CEO, and his wife is controller, of Pure Power Solutions based in Healdsburg. Their firm has designed and installed solar and battery storage system project designs and implemented them for business customers such as Costeaux Bakery, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Oliver's Market, Chops Teen Club and many other businesses.

“We've seen a 50-fold increase in calls focusing on energy storage after the Kincaid fire and 100 percent of callers are not just curious, but sincerely want to explore their options with solar and battery storage.

The firm did the solar and energy backup system for Silver Oak Cellar's Alexander Valley facility.

“We help our clients achieve their self-sufficiency objectives,” Hawthorne said. “PPS installed Silver Oak Cellar's solar and energy backup system for its Alexander Valley facility – the first commercial winery in the world to reach the green-building program's highest level of recognition, Platinum LEED certification, in July of 2018. Silver Oak was also audited by the Living Building Challenge leading to sustainable design certification.

For Silver Oak, energy conservation is paramount. The winery has more than 2,500 solar panels and a renewably powered battery system that stores energy generated by the panels, with the goal that the 109,100-square-foot facility produce five percent more energy than it uses. The winery is also one of only a few commercial facilities to employ a carbon dioxide heat pump for sanitizing water, using ambient carbon dioxide in the winery rather than fossil fuels.

“It's means more than just having energy storage for emergencies. Solar and battery systems save money and produce dividends on a daily basis, and peak demand shaving and demand response can pull energy from an installed system so power utilities do not have to build additional generating plants. It is an investment in the economy and a sustainable choice that continues to add value over time,” said Jonathan Mooney, Pure Power Solutions technical sales analyst.

Dawn of microgrids

Scott Murtishaw, senior adviser for regulatory affairs with the California Solar and Storage Association, noted that demonstration projects are underway that could help prevent widespread outages in the future. For example, the California Public Utility Commission has authorized $1 million to study the feasibility of creating microgrids and determining their cost.

The CPUC is reaching out for feedback on the viability of segmenting PG&E's distributed transmission network into smaller geographical units so power outages would not affect large numbers of people, and also so power disruptions and re-energizing activities could be more precisely targeted to reduce outage durations.

To some, microgrid has more than one meaning. The first involves the public utility context, but it also can refer to a given business location or building, and even a single customer “nanogrid,” as well as to small residential home clusters such as a cul-du-sac.

This definition is also applied to farms and vineyards where, instead of renting dozens of portable generators to power disbursed electrical needs, a power distribution system can be connected to a central standby generator serving multiple points.

Microgrids have been successfully implemented in hospitals, cities, on college and business campuses, in hotel complexes, as well as among public safety organizations, and municipal utilities (such as those in Healdsburg and Palo Alto). At UC San Diego, the campus power system is known to be in “island mode” as a master meter customer of the existing public power utility.

“We're not talking about a separate set of poles and wires. Micro-grids still need a connection to the main power grid,” Murtishaw said.

Planning for 2020

For Andrew Krause, president of Northern Pacific Power Systems of Santa Rosa, the immediate goal for the commercial sector is to get through 2019 while planning for 2020.

Developing an overall energy continuity plan for a business is not a quick fix. It can take up to 18 months to design, engineer and build a solar/battery integrated system as well as time to consider whether or not to purchase a standby generator.

“We're in the first phase of crossing the Rubicon, so to speak, in terms of how the future public utility power infrastructure will look 10, 15 or even 25 years from now in an emerging era of micro-grids down to the individual building level. However, most companies do not want to wait and see how tomorrow's public power grid will evolve a quarter century from now.”

He said energy investments are being made today based on the current grid infrastructure. He predicted that will change.

“There is no silver bullet when determining to install a 500 kW or a MW generator to run a store or company depending on today's or future needs. Decisions like this take time, are not cheap, and there are no tax benefits

Storage after solar

Another vital consideration Krause raised involves adding battery backup after solar is installed. “Solar typically comes with a 10-year warranty. Modifying a solar system later to include battery storage could void the warranty unless authorized by the original contractor who installed it.”

At the heart of the energy dilemma is a basic economic reality. Business owners focus on running their enterprises. Electricity over the years has been so reliable that they haven't had to think about it. Not anymore.

Still, he said, some are waiting to see if more policy support will be forthcoming, along with cost reductions, grants and other incentives.

Industry watchers say many business leaders grossly overspend, overreact and make hasty decisions not good for the future when faced with emergency situations. Taking time to do it right - and cost effectively - can pay dividends. One-size-fits-all solutions are seldom the best choice. Their advice: Get quotes, compare prices and options, and think it through.

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