The Brains Behind Solar Power Can Give Customers A Fighting Chance Against Climate Events


By Ken Silverstein, Senior Contributor Nov 8, 2021, 08:45 am EST

Source: Forbes Photo Source: Unsplash, Zbynek Burival

When Hurricane Ida swept through New Orleans in late August, it took out eight transmission lines that left more than a million homes without electricity. The property damages and economic costs together are in the billions. But this is one event. So far this year, there have been 18 similar weather-related disasters. The Biden administration would spend $65 billion to harden the grid and to make it better able to withstand hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes. But there are other solutions — ones that center on onsite power generation: anything from buying a home generator to keeping a special hot water tank to installing solar panels. What most people don’t realize about solar panels is that they, too, are grid-dependent — unless they have battery storage or they are part of a localized microgrid.

“The issue with solar energy today is that most homeowners assume they are going to power up from solar panels as long as the sun is still shining — even when there is a power outage and the grid is out. That is not true,” says Badri Kothandaraman, chief executive of Enphase Energy Inc., in an interview. “Today, all solar panels need the grid or the utility. Those who are off-the-grid need batteries. As long as the sun is shining, we can deliver solar power to homes. That’s a game-changer.”

Enphase ENPH +1.9% does not sell solar panels. It makes micro-inverters — the brains behind the solar system. When the solar panel collects sunlight, it is absorbed as a direct current or DC. The inverter converts that to an alternate current, or AC, that is usable. The panels can then provide the needed insurance.

Consider a 2,000 square foot home that has 20 solar panels on the roof: The rate of usage is 6 kilowatts and the amount of electricity is 25 kilowatts per hour. Kothandaraman says that it would cost about $18,000 plus labor to install solar panels for this home. But with the federal tax credit, it would come to $13,000. Because most people could survive with smaller systems, they could reduce that even further. Inverters take on two forms: the first is a single string inverter that works with all 20 solar panels and is usually placed in the garage. The second is a smaller inverter that is placed under each solar panel. Enphase says that its micro-inverter comes at a premium because of its ability to operate independently of the grid during the day without a battery. The company, however, can provide a lithium-ion battery for nighttime usage. The payback is seven years, says Kothandaraman. “Texas energy consumers have been through a lot this year and the interest in reliable, clean home backup solutions is at an all-time high,” said Mohammed Abdalla, president of Good Faith Energy, which is a solar installation company serving homeowners and businesses throughout Texas, who says there is a deep market for resilient products and services. The University of Houston says that 69% of Texans lost power and 49% lost access to water during the winter freeze. One hundred people died while the economic damages were close to $300 billion. Paying the Bill According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 18 weather-climate disasters this year have each exceeded $1 billion. These events included 1 drought, 2 floods, 9 severe storms, 4 tropical cyclones, 1 wildfire, and 1 winter storm. Five hundred and thirty-eight people have died. For comparative purposes, the period between 1980 and 2020 had an annual average of 7 events.

The Insurance Information Institute says that losses from natural catastrophes were highest in 2017: $133 billion. That is when Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma hit. And so did several California wildfires. Those losses fell in 2018 and 2019. But they spiked again in 2020: nearly $40 billion, an 88% increase from the year before. The most destructive natural disaster in American history has been Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005: $125 billion, adds Statista.

Climate change is responsible for some of those events. If CO2 does not drastically fall before 2030, then 3.9 billion people are likely to experience major heatwaves by 2040 — 12 times more than the historic average, says the Chatham House. In simple terms, the higher temperatures are causing more evaporation. That means the atmosphere is holding more water and therefore intensifying the storms. It is also causing glaciers to melt and sea levels to rise.

Utilities are at risk. During Hurricane Katrina, Entergy Corp. ETR -3.5% lost 3,000 miles of transmission wires and 30,000 miles of distribution lines. And just this year, the wildfires forced Pacific Gas & Electric PCG -0.9% to cut off 48,000 customers.

In the insurance world, Allianz Insurance, AXA Group, MetLife MET +0.7%, Nationwide Corp., Prudential America, Travelers Group TRV -0.3%, and Liberty Mutual Group are credited by the non-profit Ceres for taking a strong stance on climate issues. After all, they are the ones to pay for the clean-up and restoration.

But consumers also have leverage — the power to protect against mass outages. “Now, homeowners can realize the true promise of solar — to make and use their own power,” says Enphase’s Kothandaraman. “I need to control my energy. I need to produce and to store my energy. No one should tell me what to do. That is energy independence.”

Consumers are not just focused on adverse weather events and climate change. They are also cognizant of the high price of natural gas, which is the primary fuel used to heat homes. Lucky for them, they have a range of options to fight back — those that can keep the power flowing during the day and night. Solar is one of them, particularly if the panels are connected to a storage device and micro-inverters that serve as a de facto microgrid.


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