Energy Storage For All: Home Batteries Give Low-Income Customers Security

by Anna Gretz
November 9, 2015
Home Battery

When power outages hit, they hit residents of affordable housing communities especially hard.

Think hurricanes and tornadoes, disasters that leave thousands stranded in their homes without power or backup generators. Outages after these events can last for agonizing weeks, but power failures could be completely avoided with the use of solar photovoltaics, combined with home battery storage.

Life, Death, and Energy Storage

Many lives depend on electricity. Medical equipment, heating and cooling, and elevators greatly impact the quality of life of millions of Americans. Without power, many citizens could face life-threatening circumstances within days, and many others would find themselves stranded inside their housing units, without the strength to climb or descend dozens of floors of stairs. Storing reliable energy sources in energy storage systems like home batteries could protect our country’s most vulnerable populations from devastating power failures.

The moment disaster strikes, threatening to shut down a furnace or a life support unit, home battery power can kick in, seamlessly preventing the potential physical and emotional stress that could follow a power outage. Home batteries are able to store energy either straight from the electrical grid, or from renewable energy sources like solar panels. In the case of a power outage, storage systems like home batteries act like cleaner, quieter, low-maintenance generators, providing units with power when the grid has failed.

Depending on the amount of storage, grid-connected home batteries can potentially provide reliable electricity for days. Home batteries hooked up to solar photovoltaics, however, can power a housing unit indefinitely, even in the case of grid electricity failure. Solar-plus-storage systems like these can, of course, be used at all times, even when the grid is operational, to take advantage of clean, free energy from the sun. Energy storage technology could be life-changing, and life-saving, for the elderly, the disabled, and the economically challenged.

First in Line

With the release of Tesla’s new energy storage technologies, it was evident that CEO, Elon Musk, was focusing on commercial customers and the tech-elite to generate early interest in the product. This isn’t surprising, as innovative technology is often first adopted by a wealthier market. The initial investment from wealthier customers gives companies the proof of concept and capital to increase their inventory, and drive down costs in order to appeal to a wider market. This process can take years.

But it’s clear, especially when watching the news coverage of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, commercial entities and wealthy technophiles are not the ones who need solar energy storage the most. Those at the top of the socioeconomic scale are often much better prepared for power outages, and rely less on electrical medical equipment and elevators. Households without many resources suffer even more when their power source is unplugged. Yet, this lack of resources prevents many people from being able to invest in life-saving technology like energy storage and home batteries. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Why Not Now?

Home batteries for low-income customers doesn’t have to be a pipe dream - energy storage is a viable option for affordable housing units right now. The Clean Energy Group recently conducted the first public economic analysis of solar energy storage systems in affordable housing. This study analyzed the viability of installing renewable energy generating technology like solar panels, and storing this generated energy in energy storage systems like home batteries, allowing residents to use this power even when the sun was not shining. The Clean Energy group was hoping to show that the initial cost investment in these new systems would pay off before the system itself needed to be replaced. They concluded that solar photovoltaics and home battery storage can both reduce costs, and increase power resiliency.

Clean Energy Group’s report used real energy data from Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York City to lay out cost-effective opportunities to install home batteries in affordable housing across the country. The report shows that energy storage can not only provide electricity during outages, but help customers reduce their bill significantly by avoiding peak demand charges, and selling unused power back to the grid. In many areas, power companies charge higher rates or additional fees for customers who use electricity during the hours where demand is highest, usually around 5:30 pm. Since many people are demanding power all at the same time, the electrical grid requires more resources to meet demand. In order to fund grid maintenance and increased capacity, companies charge customers higher rates during these hours.

Housing units with energy storage systems like home batteries, however, can store energy during times when demand is low, and use it during these peak-demand hours, avoiding any additional charges or fees. As an added bonus, any energy stored in home batteries that the household does not need to use can be sold back to the grid, lowering energy bills even further. Cutting energy bills this significantly makes energy storage systems an even better and more feasible idea for lower-income housing units, in addition to giving them back-up power, and protection from grid failure.

Back-Up Power is Essentially Free

The up-front cost of solar installation, coupled with energy storage systems like a home batteries can be high, but this technology provides building cost savings that rival photovoltaic systems alone, or other energy-efficiency efforts. The revenue generated by electricity bill savings, in addition to selling solar energy back to the grid, can pay off the initial cost of installation well within the lifetime of the equipment. If you think about it in these terms, the benefit of having back-up power through energy storage is basically free.

As soon as solar panel systems and energy storage systems like home batteries are installed in any housing unit, low-income or otherwise, both the savings and the power resiliency benefits are instant. While it may take some time for the money saved by reduced bills to add up to the same amount as the cost of installing this technology, housing units get to enjoy the security of blackout protection from day one. Back-up power for communities that depend on electricity every day is a luxury worth paying a high premium, but with solar energy coupled with energy storage, the benefit is essentially free.

With cost-effectiveness in mind, it seems senseless for low-income and vulnerable populations to continue running the risk of lengthy power failures. Big energy storage brands have presented home batteries as a viable option for commercial entities and higher-income households, increasing education and public acceptance of these technologies. Now it’s time to widen the customer base to include the communities who need blackout protection the most.

Changing the Way We Think About Clean Energy

Until now, discussions about solar systems and energy storage systems like home batteries have involved resource-rich communities. Lower-income housing communities and residential developments have not really entered the picture. But effective market incentives could enable the installation of energy storage systems in lower-income communities today, instead of waiting for the technology to slowly trickle down from the top. Clean energy doesn’t have to be an exclusive, elite idea.

In fact, it shouldn’t be. Coping with the aftermath of long-term power outages drains resources from everyone. Ensuring blackout protection for vulnerable communities benefits more than simply those communities themselves. The infiltration of clean energy initiatives is good for our cities, and good for our earth. Keeping low-income housing communities safe and operational protects city and state funds, and increases community value. In addition to this, further investing in the solar energy and energy storage industries will drive down costs for everyone.

Home battery energy storage can build safer communities, protect at-risk populations, and provide an economic return at the same time.

Expanding the solar energy storage customer market will benefit all sides of the industry, encouraging the advancement of an industry that will be essential to powering our society into the future. Every community should be prepared for an energy crisis if, and when, disaster strikes again.