Workers lift a solar panel onto a roof during a residential solar installation in Scripps Ranch, San Diego, California, U.S. October 14, 2016. Picture taken October 14, 2016.
Mike Blake | Reuters
Extreme weather events across the U.S. — from wildfires and drought in the West, to deep freezes and floods in the South and Southeast — have disrupted the electric grid this year. As a result, homeowners are buying solar and energy storage systems at rates never before seen, according to data from solar website SolarReviews.com.
As California faces devastating wildfires and record drought, the website saw a 358% year-over-year jump in solar estimate quotes requested by California residents between June 30 and Aug. 6.
The state has also faced numerous power outages over the past year. PG&E has cut the power on several occasions when dry conditions and high winds increase the risk of sparking a fire. The state has also had trouble on the power supply side, and the California Independent System Operator has issued flex alerts, calling on customers to cut usage when demand is expected to peak. In some cases, rolling blackouts have taken place when power availability comes up short.
A similar phenomenon played out earlier this summer in Oregon, when Portland hit an all-time high of 116 degrees. SolarReviews said that between June 25 and June 30 the website saw a 919% increase in solar estimate requests from the state compared to the same period in 2020.
It’s not only happening in the West. The deep-freeze that hit Texas and the South in February, leading to multi-day power cuts for millions of customers and more than 150 deaths, fueled interest in on-site energy systems. SolarReviews said it saw an 850% jump in quote requests between Feb. 13 and Feb. 17 in Texas.
“These folks that experience environmental difficulty gain a whole different perspective on what solar and batteries are,” SolarReviews founder and President Andy Sendy said.
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Launched in 2012, SolarReviews has had more than 25 million unique visitors across its platform of websites that offer information on solar power, as well as highly localized quotes. The website has an option for visitors to request a quote, and SolarReviews makes money by then selling that data to companies that operate in the consumer’s location.
Sendy said customers’ questions about solar have become increasingly sophisticated. At first, queries included things like “do solar panels work?” Now, people will ask questions about the type of solar system they should get if they also want to hook up electric vehicles.
Sendy attributes much of this shift to word-of-mouth: Many people know someone who’s gotten solar panels, so their efficacy is now accepted.
But the potential saving on electricity bills has consistently remained the predominant driving force.
“[Customers] make the decision based on the economic benefits,” he said. “The bottom line is it makes money. So whether your motivation is environmental or financial you sort of come to the same decision.”
Sendy has also noticed another shift. At first, customers were interested in systems with the fastest payback. But in the past few years, more people are looking for systems that offer maximum power reliability.
In order for a solar system to operate normally when the central grid goes down, there also needs to be on-site battery storage at each house or building. Rooftop panels won’t function by themselves if service is cut, since to protect utility workers repairing wires, power can’t be flowing back into the grid.
A recent survey from SolarReviews found that battery storage installations have been growing since 2016, with nearly three-quarters of installations over the last five years taking place in 2020.
Installers with a national footprint such as Sunrun, Sunnova and SunPower offer storage options, using products from Enphase Energy and SolarEdge, among others. Goldman Sachs predicts the market for home energy storage will hit $1 billion for the first time in 2022.
A separate survey from SunPower showed similar trends, with a third of homeowners considering changing to solar citing power outages as a driving force. Nearly two-thirds of homeowners with energy storage said outages were a reason for their purchase.
“Against the backdrop of high-profile power outages, the next wave of solar owners view battery storage as a vital component of their solar energy system,” the study said.
Sophisticated software systems also allow customers to use their batteries even while the grid is running as normal. In states where there’s time-of-use pricing, for example, the battery can be charged when electricity prices are low, and it can then power the home when prices are high. Additionally, in some states net metering — where solar energy owners are credited for power they add to the grid — can make having a solar system with storage a particularly attractive option.
While the companies in the solar space that grab headlines are typically those with a national footprint, Sendy said he believes the best solar companies are the small, local ones, given the needed urgency when there are power problems.
“I believe solar is inherently a localized service business. I don’t believe in corporate solar,” he said. “They really haven’t gotten good at the after-sales service.”