When We Lose Electric Power Service
The case for distributed power production just got a whole lot stronger.
We lost power last night. It started in the afternoon and that seemed innocent enough. We’ve seen blackouts before. Usually, they’d only last a couple of minutes or hours and then they’d be done. We’d be back in business with the refrigerator, the AC, and all the electronics. But today, we’re waiting extra long. First, they said it’d be fixed by 2 pm. Then, just as that time was approaching, I got a text indicating that power would not be restored until 2 am the next day. This was going to be a long night. We were without power for 7 hours.
We were fine for most of the afternoon. We don’t mind the heat so much, we let the inside temps climb to 78 in the summer. I shave my head, so heat transfer is not a problem for me. My wife and my girls, however, have full heads of thick, beautiful hair. It was not so easy for them.
I have seen how different power companies manage their infrastructure. I spent most of my adult life in Southern California, with service from Southern California Edison. Even during that bout with ridiculous power crises created by “the smartest guys in the room” at Enron, I didn’t see any power outages. In all of my time in Southern California, I can only recall maybe 4or 5 service interruptions over the span of 40 years.
Here in Utah, I’m served by Rocky Mountain Power. They must be really cheap with their infrastructure. Little redundancy, higher rates than California, too. Some idiot digs in the wrong place, boom, power goes out. Yesterday, a transformer blew up. I’m guessing they were working with a really cheap box. RMP has a big investor, Berkshire Hathaway. BH is pushing for higher rates and lower pay for net metering. It’s totally one-sided.
I think we have 3–4 outages every year. Most are very short-lived and get back on track right away, or we don’t notice it. Every once in a while, we have something that lasts long enough to make us uncomfortable. I think the trend is that these service interruptions are going to get worse. Revenue is going to decline with people being unable to pay their bills. There will be greater attrition due to the pandemic and just the fact that the best guys are getting older. And they’re cheap. They’re probably not paying top dollar for their labor or their training or their hardware. Compared to SCE, RMP is run by amateurs.
I’ve been dreaming about solar power plus batteries for years. I’d love to see our home on solar power and zero net metering. Whatever extra power is generated should go into a battery. I want to live a life where we’re still connected to the grid, but we hardly ever draw from the grid nor do we send power back to the grid.
So I looked at pricing from Tesla and I see that for about $19k, we could have solar plus 6 days of battery supplied power if we needed it. I can see how after two or three 8-hour outages in a year like the one we had yesterday, I could convince my wife to invest. Yes, it’s going to cost more than what we’re paying now. But in the long run, it’s going to be worth it. If I refinance my house again while rates are still low, I’m going to pull some money out just for that.
I often get calls from people selling solar power. They always ask if I’m paying $160 a month or more for power. I average $80 a month now, but the long term trend is that rates are going to go up as more people adopt solar power. If you’re paying more than $112 a month for power, you’re already in the ballpark.
I wrote much of this article in my car last night on a nearly full laptop battery while sweating and charging my phone. All I could think of was that I want to have a Powerwall that will keep the network running and keep the lights on while the dummies at RMP figure out that I’m a customer. I can see how a few people on my block could afford to purchase the hardware and get it done.
The outage last night makes distributed power generation all the more compelling. Who cares if the utilities are investing in utility-scale solar, wind, or hydro if service is interrupted when a transformer blows up? If they can’t manage their infrastructure, then they’re going to lose customers when their customers build their own infrastructure. And they need to lose customers in order to get incentivized to do it right.
Solar plus batteries are the way to go. That makes every resident almost completely independent of the utilities. Most people don’t make enough money to make use of the tax incentives that reduce the cash or financing costs of the hardware down to something more reasonable. But it looks like the federal tax subsidies are going to expire next year. Those subsidies are keeping the prices high. When they expire, prices will have to drop in order to sell units.
I checked out pricing at Tesla because I only want to buy from them. I’ve looked at other vendors and I just don’t see the quality that I see at Tesla. I also find that prices have come down a lot since I first started looking. 5 years ago, solar power for my house was quoted at $21k. Now, I see that I can get solar and batteries for about $19k. The value proposition is there and it will only get better over time, especially when the subsidies expire.
By then, Tesla will have scaled up production even more and they will have lower rates for financing, making the value proposition only that much more attractive. So I don’t see this move as a probability. I see it as a certainty, with the only question being, “when?”
With distributed power generation through solar and wind, the citizenry is protected from arbitrary interruptions in power service. Even if we had safe nuclear power, rooftop solar power is far better at serving the citizens than a centralized power source. Solar with batteries means that citizens can accumulate their own power and store it for when it’s needed.
Berkshire Hathaway has been arguing for a much lower rate for net metering, too. They want to take it down from 9 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2 cents. That kind of change will only make batteries more attractive compared to net metering. Berkshire Hathaway has real political power. A citizenry armed with renewable power and batteries will have greater political power still. Renewable power is how we distribute electrical and political power.