Converging Net Zero Energy With Lifestyle Resiliency in Modern Day California
Converging Net Zero Energy With Lifestyle Resiliency in Modern Day California
In the wake of another devastating wildfire season in California, a relatively new phenomenon has occurred throughout the state on a widespread basis - utility companies voluntarily cutting electricity to millions of customers for multiple days in a row. Over the course of the past couple weeks, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG& E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), have each shut off power to customers to reduce the chances of their infrastructure starting fires during high fire risk weather conditions. These three investor owned utilities combine to supply over ¾ of the electric supply in California. Their position is not a decision I envy, balancing life & safety of customers having electricity versus the life & safety associated with the potential to spark or exacerbate a wildfire, however, it does highlight the critical need to establish a new solution or combined solutions.
These recent outages highlight the need to update our out-of-date utility infrastructure throughout the country. The current grid lacks resilience and flexibility and is based largely upon century-old strategies for the first generation of Electricity. We are amidst the tipping point on the opportunity to change the way we interact with the grid, and change the point of production - altering from fixed centralized production system to a more flexible distributed generation grid with energy storage systems built into it. One of the greatest opportunities to make this change lies in our ability to produce new, high-efficiency, energy-independent housing.
The cost to produce renewable energy has been cut in half over the past decade and battery storage costs are following the same decline in cost trajectory making it viable for mass adoption.
Where Does My Energy Come From?
Let’s back up and quickly explore how energy is produced and distributed today. Today, much like 100 years ago, a centralized power plant produces medium voltage electricity and then uses a step up transformer to increase the voltage to distribute via transmission lines, making it more efficient to travel farther. The transmission lines travel long distances through a complex network to a step down transformer at a more localized substation. From there, energy travels via power lines to the network of buildings it services and finally another transformation down so the power can be consumed by residential homes. Of course with that many step up and down transformers in the system, there is a lot of wasted energy in the system. Less than 1/3 of the generated energy makes it into buildings. In other words, 66.2% of the generated electricity falls into a category Lawrence Livermore National Lab refers to as “rejected energy”, lost in production and transit. This system is largely based on century old technology, when it was financially more advantageous to build a centralized production system. This was not long after electricity was “invented” and the challenge of that day was finding the best means of rolling out to the masses.
Fast forward a century, and we have a whole new set of challenges: we must conserve energy in order to reduce carbon emissions and create a more flexible system that can take advantage of modern day technologies to match consumer demand. We must also change the paradigm of the grid from reliable to resilient. The importance of the latter is magnified during the unfortunate circumstances that result in a power shut-down during natural disasters, as was the case in California in the Fall of 2019.
We are at the convergence of two absolutely necessary pathways concerning the resiliency of our utility structure and carbon reduction. Arguably, formulating microgrids, integrating distributed energy sources, line hardening, and burial of electric lines can all play a role in creating a more resilient utility system. In my opinion, the addition of clean distributed energy storage systems will create the largest, positive and immediate impact. Ironically, the contribution of clean energy production and storage toward grid resiliency is not only a safeguard against mother nature's wrath, it is also the best technology solution for her health and ours.
The solution lies in a distributed or decentralized energy production system. Having more “power plants” and storage nodes spread throughout a larger grid diversifies the risk of that entire system, and provides more flexibility if part of it fails. A distributed system can move energy around in order to pick up for the lost production. A decentralized system can elect to island itself or a portion itself in the event of an outage. These systems can also scale up by adding more generation and storage within the network. It is our belief, that enabling homes as the primary component for energy storage, is the single greatest impact we can have on creating a future of clean, sustainable, healthy and abundant energy production.
Wikipedia defines Microgrids as “ a localized group of electricity sources and loads that normally operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional wide area grid, but can also disconnect to "island mode" — and function autonomously as physical or economic conditions dictate.” In the terms we are speaking of, this means a home or group of homes with solar panels + battery storage systems that can intelligently balance supply with demand and forecasted future demand. In the event of an outage they can island themselves or island the cluster of homes within the microgrid.
Why Isn’t Solar Enough?
This answer also matches the recurring theme on this topic: resiliency and carbon reduction. The carbon reduction point is wholistic and not just granular. If we are connected to a utility grid, we have a wider impact than just the energy we consume or produce.
From a resilience perspective, solar panels (without battery) are great when the grid is running, as the grid can serve as the battery. However, when the grid goes down or is shut down, homes with solar and no battery will not have power during the outage. Typical grid tied solar installations will not provide any power to a home during a power outage. Certain solar inverters might be able to backup a single circuit, but those are the minority. They are also a manual transfer, where a person would have to go to the inverter to flip the switch, and this only helps when the sun is out. The solar panels that are grid tied will not function as a backup energy source. With the addition of a battery storage system, the solar energy produced on site can be stored in a battery and used when demand or load arises. This means the battery can discharge the clean energy whether its day or night, or whether the grid is up or down. In fact, when an outage occurs, the backup will automatically pickup the designed loads within 1/100 of a millisecond, not even enough time to trigger your appliances from blinking 12:00.
Additionally if the grid goes down, that means your water storage tanks would not be functional, which is a critical safety and protection strategy used by both private landowners, as well as firefighters, who have rights to stored water supply. Having a battery system tied to those critical safety systems could save lives.
From a carbon perspective, the Duck Curve (below) is why solar without battery is not a solution with benefit to the grid. The duck curve is formed by charting the grid load over the course of a day. The time of day where solar panels produce energy is when the load is at its lowest. Then right as people start to get home from work, peak loads start to come onto the grid, but at that time of day solar production slows or stops, usually from 4:00pm to 9:00pm. As more renewable energy production technology has been adopted along with increased energy efficiency standards, the belly of the duck has dropped. The problem is that the grid does not flip a switch to instantly match the increasing load as it occurs, only battery storage can do that. Instead, the utility companies have to bring online older generation power plants that are less efficient, slow to ramp up, and thus the “dirtiest” energy in terms of carbon production to meet those peak demand requirements. This means that in the optimum solar window, dirty peaker plants fire up to meet estimated loads hours in the future. Mircrogrids are critical to sustaining the further market penetration of renewables, which are soon set to increase with new energy codes in California. Starting January 1 2020, all new homes are required to achieve net zero energy performance. This will further drop the belly of the duck with even more solar on the grid, but also due to lower demand by improved efficiencies of the buildings.
Okay, but I can be resilient in outages with a gas generator, right?
Yes, that gas guzzling generator will produce energy while your electricity is out, but it also produces toxic exhaust into the environment we’re handing to our children. Additionally, although a gas generator has less upfront cost, the amount of usefulness they have is limited to when they operate. Whereas, a battery storage system is always providing benefit, so the cost benefit to generators really doesn’t even come close to comparing to batteries..
Now, a final thought on gas generators and I promise I’ll move on! What would make you feel more comfortable or safe in the event of a wildfire, or other state of emergency:
A combustible gas pipeline into your home, or worse, a large vessel full of combustible gas sitting on top of the ground within a stones throw of your home; OR
- A rooftop solar array storing clean energy inside your conditioned (fire resilient Dvele) home using a high tech battery, with stable, non-combustible chemistry?
10 times out of 10 I’m choosing option 2 for the health and safety of my family. No question.
What other Benefits Does A Battery Provide When the Grid Is Fully Functioning?
A battery storage system is a grid asset to the utility company when the grid is operating. A battery can help with load shape, load shift, dynamic capacity, frequency stabilization of the grid, reduced strain on the grid infrastructure, enhanced demand response, solar time shifting, peak shaving, and solar self consumption. All of these strategies are ultimately helping to reduce carbon emissions and reinvent the American energy strategy.
Some battery systems have hardware and software capabilities that can allow the utility company complete or partial access to the battery storage system. This further increases the benefits to the grid by allowing the utility company to use dynamic response to meet current demand by tapping into your battery’s stored energy. This may have a financial benefit to you, in being able to potentially sell this power back to the utility, but surely benefits our society to create a more resilient energy system.
So What Can I Do?
One thing anyone can do (with or without solar) is to use energy outside peak hours where feasible. This could mean setting your laundry on delay until mid day hours, running the dishwasher mid day, setting the water heater to heat before peak times start, or pre-cooling your home for those evening hours. This is known as Load Shifting Demand Response.
Even without solar or renewable energy generation, having a battery can help you virtually store clean renewable produced energy from neighbors that have solar without battery. In essence, you would charge from the grid in off peak times, so you can get through peak power times on your stored off peak energy. This gives you some of the resiliency of a battery, and makes a positive ecological impact. The downside is that for extended outages, if you do not have solar production, the battery must be carefully rationed because once it dies, it will need the grid to be online to recharge. This makes it a good solution for short term outages, but less resilient for multi day events.
And What Is Dvele doing?
In a time where the United States consumed more energy than any other year, up 4% between 2017 and 2018, Dvele is making a conscious effort to positively impact the future of our country’s energy structure. We are taking a multi-faceted approach to solving this major issue of our time, and we refer to it as The Self-Powered Home Initiative
The Self-Powered Home Part I: Efficiency
Our approach starts with a focus on conservation through maximum home efficiency. By focusing on producing homes that require significantly less energy to operate, we reduce the amount of energy needed to power the home, and that makes our goal of producing self-powered homes much more attainable.
Home efficiency starts with what we refer to as the Building Envelope, which is a combination of building engineering practices, techniques and materials that work together to create an air-tight and thermal seal on all six sides of the home. Air-tightness, whether it’s preventing outside air from passing into the home unconditioned or preventing inside air that is conditioned from leaking from the home, is one of the most important things to reduce in order to achieve maximum home efficiency. Think of it as turning your air conditioning on to cool your car on a hot day, but leaving the windows cracked open. By allowing cool air to escape and hot air to enter unconditioned, your car’s A/C has to work harder and longer which taxes the system, reduces its longevity, and uses more gas. It’s inefficient. The same thing is true for a house. An air-tight building envelope on a home is the equivalent of having the windows rolled up in your car, and, unfortunately, most traditionally built homes are woefully leaky when it comes to air-tightness.
We produce homes with an extreme level of envelope integrity, which results in them having very small energy demands and leads to a decrease in overall carbon emissions. We couple this low energy demand, for the lifetime operation of our homes, with a conscious approach to material selection, which demands low embodied energy (the amount of energy it takes to produce something). A Dvele home uses Passive House airtight metrics to ensure the efficacy of our building envelope. We employ a minimum of continuous R-16 exterior insulation surrounding the entire structure, which is the most effective type of insulation. The insulation wrapped around the exterior of the building reduces thermal bridging, or energy from conducting through the homes structure. Low-load, high-tech, and highly efficient mechanical systems, LED lighting, smart water heaters, energy recovery systems and energy monitoring that further improves the operational efficiency of the home. This all equates to a Dvele home needing to use 84% less energy per square foot than the average American home (referred to as Energy Use Intensity or EUI).
Due to our conservation first approach and passive techniques used in the building envelope and systems within the home, the home does not lose or take on heat as fast as most. As such, the home works as a thermal battery, being able to retain indoor comfort (heat or cool) with minimal or no input. This means in an outage situation, shutting down the heating or cooling system could give you extended autonomy without the expected discomfort that would usually result in a standard building. That's the resilience element. The carbon reduction factor is that the home’s loads are more stable throughout a 24 hour day. This in turn means that a Dvele home does not produce large peak demand spikes, which most homes do. The loads are more consistent and predictable throughout the day which makes it more beneficial to add-in battery storage systems.
Another important element is having electricity as a homes only fuel source. Nobody can get to true net zero energy if you burn hydrocarbons as a source for energy. No measure of clean, renewable energy generation can offset fracked natural gas, or any other gas. However, a building can achieve net positive energy even by offsetting the loads with small solar arrays. The resiliency benefit of our fully electrified homes is also getting rid of an explosive safety hazard, especially in a wildfire risk area.
Homes without natural gas piped into them for use with various appliances, also have health benefits beyond the safety, carbon reduction, and resiliency. A home that does not burn fossil fuels for energy within it has no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning - except for outdoor sources (ie a car). The ultrafine particles from combustion that are created from cooking with natural gas are also dramatically reduced. These risky elements include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and ultrafine particles between 1nm and 10nm. There will be a future blog elaborating on this subject.
The Self-Powered Home Part II: Solar Power Generation
Due to the fact that our homes require 84% less energy to operate , and the simplification that comes from electrification throughout the home, the ability for solar power generated from a rooftop array to completely offset the home’s energy needs are within reach of a solar array’s ability to produce energy. For this reason, each Dvele home after January 1, 2020 includes solar arrays Sunflare as a standard component.
The Self-Powered Home Part III: Solar Power Storage and Grid Independence
The last aspect of enabling Dvele homes to be self-powered and contribute to its community’s energy resilience is to utilize on-site battery storage to capture the energy surplus that’s generated by the solar array and through the home’s energy savings. We feel that in today’s climate (both literally and figuratively) battery storage is now more of a necessity rather than luxury in California. While solar panels are now required on all new homes in California, battery backup systems currently are not. but they are needed if a solar-enabled house wants to maintain power when the main power grid is shut off. If you live in California, some estimates say that it will take PG&E over 10 years and billions of dollars that it doesn’t have to update the grid and delivery systems to be more resilient and resistant to shut offs during natural disaster events such as wildfire. So the prospect of having a battery backup system is smart. At Dvele, on all direct-to-consumer homes, Dvele will include an installed solar system, and give the customer the option to include a battery backup system in the price of their home. If a client chooses not to include a battery backup, we do include all the infrastructure to make a battery storage system an easy plug and play install.
Beyond resiliency, Dvele homes with battery storage will reduce the effects of the duck curve by being able to store the energy they produce, and self consume that clean energy to get through peak power without any draw from the grid.. The batteries can also store excess energy that can be exported onto the grid to provide clean energy to your neighbors even when the sun is down, as well as a potential payback from the utility company for contributing the excess power.
Unlike the grid, Dvele homes are produced so that they will not become energy obsolete. Dvele homes are built to the future building codes of 2030. A Dvele home will not only be timeless in design, but also in terms of the codes it will meet.
As standard with Dvele, there is a multi faceted approach to energy efficiency that pairs perfectly with resiliency strategies that ensure a safer, healthier living environment for our owners.
We’re not focused on what is required today, we’re connecting Dvelings and our Dvelers (you) to a better tomorrow.
Are There Incentives?
Currently, the Federal Tax Credit (ITC) is available to the combined cost of both solar and battery storage systems. This dropped from 30% in 2019 to 27% in 2020. There is no way to know if this incentive will drop further as it is more widely adopted.
Having the availability to store energy allows one to take advantage of Time of Use pricing, eliminating peak power prices
In 2020, California will be releasing Demand Response Initiatives. These initiatives have not been formally announced but may include credit for clean energy exported to the grid during peak times. Those building owners who have flexible microgrid-able systems, will be able to take advantage of utility incentives that get released to optimize the grid, and help turn it into a flexible network of distributed power.
Dvele is committed to building resilient homes that have the ability to withstand natural disasters, reduce carbon emissions on the homes it produces, reduce carbon emissions on others buildings (via peak clean energy export to the grid), and act as a partner to upgrade the grid infrastructure - by serving as a catalyst in the decentralization of electricity production. Dvele feels this is inevitable as the United States looks to create a smarter grid, and we are proud to be at the forefront of that movement.