When Karen Cakebread was forced to evacuate her home in Calistoga, Calif., during the Tubbs fire in 2017 — and when she lost power at the winery she owns — she realized the danger frequent wildfires could pose to the electricity that powers her daily life.
The news that California’s largest utility plans to proactively shut off power lines when there’s a wildfire threat gave her yet another push to transition to solar power.
“We all talk about it and think about it,” Cakebread said about adopting renewable energy. “[B]ut I think now the fire danger and the loss of power being the new normal for us, it’s prompted a lot of people to pull the trigger.”
Cakebread is just one of several residents whose concern about California utilities’ plans to impose blackouts has led them to install solar panels and battery systems to keep power on during an outage.
This has multiple environmental benefits: By drawing power from the sun, homeowners can shrink their contributions to climate-warming emissions that help fuel the wildfires. And they are accelerating California’s adoption of solar. The state, which has set a goal to make its electricity grid carbon free by 2045, will start requiring newly built homes to don solar panels in 2020.
But it’s an option not every homeowner in California can afford. Although advocates say it will lower monthly utility bills, experts say the installation of the solar panels and batteries are unaffordable for most residents.
That means most residents in fire-prone areas will be left to deal with intermittent outages caused either by wildfires — or the utilities — on their own.
A days-long outage imposed by PG&E in October gave a glimpse of the disruptive effects of blackouts — and communities across the state are poised to see more of them in the upcoming wildfire season.
In October, PG&E cut power in several areas, including Calistoga, in a test of its plan to power off the grid in fire-prone areas when there are high-risk conditions. PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith told me the shutoff initially affected about 60,000 customers; most people had their power restored within 48 hours, but a few experienced a longer blackout. The outage, residents said, left them with some anxieties: What happens to the food in their refrigerators? To their businesses? What about elderly residents who rely on powered medical devices?
Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga, told The Energy 202 that while he’s seen a “significant uptick” in people moving to alternatives such as solar energy, he acknowledged the cost can be prohibitive.
“The unfortunate thing is it ends up being the case that people with resources, with the financial capacity to do so, can do so,” he said. “We have a large percentage of our population who does not have the disposable income. They’re never going to be able to afford solar panels.”
PG&E says it needs to shut off power “more frequently due to the extreme weather events and dry vegetation conditions.” It’s part of the utility’s plan to increase safety measures as it faces billions in lawsuits over its role in sparking numerous wildfires.
“I applaud and appreciate the efforts [utilities] are taking to make us all safer,” Canning told me. “But our concern is they’re going to, they’ve admitted, be a little bit more liberal in the activation of these shutdowns.”
The cost of solar and energy storage has dropped in the past decade, making it an attractive option to some. But JR DeShazo, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, said it can be up to two or three times more expensive to invest in rooftop solar and battery storage as it is to be a typical utility customer. For example, he suggested an average $150 a month utility cost can increase to $300 or $400 a month to pay for solar and battery costs for a typical small family.
That’s why potential outages should not be the only justification for adopting solar, he said. “To some extent, people are overly alarmed that they’re going to lose power,” DeShazo said. “Even if it does occur… it would not be something that would justify at this stage the significant capital investment they would need in rooftop solar and battery storage.” He said these investments are a small-scale effort by some Californians, calling it an “environmentalist household’s vision for going off the grid.”
Melvin Hoagland, a Sonoma, Calif. resident, agreed his initial interest in solar power was his “climate responsibility.”
But he was convinced after he was forced out of his house for more than a week during a wildfire in 2017. “It was impossible to breathe … When the power went out, we could no longer clear our air,” he said. “Soon after that it became unlivable.” The idea of future blackouts pushed him to invest in a solar and battery system. “We didn’t want to be at the whim of PG&E,” he told The Energy 202.
Lynn Jurich, CEO of residential solar panel company Sunrun, which is installing the system in Hoagland’s home, said there has been a surge in interest in its products. The company has started mentioning outages to customers as a reason solar panels and battery systems could mitigate concerns. She expects demand to rise as people learn more about the utilities’ proactive outages or experience them firsthand.
California’s top energy companies have looked to prepare customers for the blackouts. PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric launched radio ads and a new website explaining the shutoffs and urging residents to sign up for alerts and prepare emergency plans.
Canning said PG&E told him ahead of the 2019 wildfire season there could be five to 15 shutoff events this year, each of which could last two or more days. But Smith, the PG&E representative, told me there’s no way to predict the number of outages because they’re in part dependent on weather. He said when an outage is implemented, the utility aims to give customers 48 hours’ notice and to restore power within two days, but customers are urged to prepare for an extended outage just in case.
“I believe they’re going to hit the switch more frequently,” Canning said about the shutoffs. “If [wildfires] keep going at this pace, if this is the new norm, we need to look at all the approaches possible.”