The grid outages hitting California this year gave the clean energy industry a chance to prove itself, showing that localized solar power and batteries really can help people ride through grid disruption.
But the events — stemming from wildfire prevention shutoffs, scarce electricity supplies and good, old-fashioned equipment malfunction — also revealed a swath of the population that typical distributed energy solutions do not serve. That would be renters, people who do not own a roof to install solar on.
California's homeownership rate has hovered around 55 percent in recent years, lower than the national average. Around 17 million Californians are tenants, according to advocacy group Tenants Together. All of those people cannot access the much-vaunted benefits of cleaner, decentralized energy.
“There is not nearly enough attention paid to lower-income [and] moderate-income folks and renters related to the energy transition,” said Cisco DeVries, CEO of demand-response startup OhmConnect, which renters actually can participate in. “When we talk energy transition, people’s minds shift right away to solar on roofs and Powerwalls and a Tesla in the garage.”
Renters can enjoy clean backup power through a handful of groundbreaking programs that make it available to multifamily housing. And a small crop of products can help renters through a blackout without radically altering their homes.
But the few emerging options leave plenty of gaps for the industry to fill.
Can you get solar or batteries without owning a home?
Renters typically are not allowed to make structural changes to the home they occupy. It’s hard to think of a more long-lasting intervention than bolting a bunch of panels onto a roof for several decades.
Sunrun, the nation’s largest rooftop solar installer, needs to work with a property owner when signing a contract, spokesperson Andy Newbold confirmed. A big part of this is the ability to sign a long-term agreement: Sunrun’s service commitments typically last 20 years or more.
Battery systems, which can power some or all of a house’s needs during an outage, are technically more portable than a solar installation. But they still require electricians to install them and rewire the critical loads, amounting to more alteration than a renter probably can or wishes to incur.
With conventional distributed energy offerings off the table, renters can seek out a few places where groundbreaking programs make them available.
German battery startup sonnen, acquired by Shell in 2019, outfitted the eco-chic Soleil Lofts apartment complex outside of Salt Lake City with its residential batteries. Carbon-conscious renters can choose a unit there and live beneath solar panels and alongside an ecoLinx battery system. The batteries provide backup power in the rare event of an outage and also serve as a virtual power plant for the local utility. Otherwise, the tenants have limited means to interact with the clean-energy technologies.
Sonnen is working on similar projects in California, Arizona, Florida and Illinois; that model requires a homebuilder partner that buys into the distributed energy vision and weaves it into home designs.
Sunrun offers another route. The installer is working with community-choice aggregators in the Bay Area to outfit homes, including multifamily housing, with solar and storage. If the property owner agrees to participate, this program provides tenants bill savings and backs up communal spaces, though not individual units, in an outage.
East Bay Community Energy, one of the participating power providers, has begun outreach to landlords and aims to install systems through the end of 2022.
“We’re trying to create new models for participation,” said JP Ross, vice president of local development, electrification and innovation at EBCE. “It’s critical that everyone gets access to these programs and benefits.”
To access the benefits of conventional rooftop solar and battery storage, then, requires living in the right building in a very limited number of locales. Even then, most of these projects are still a few years out from completion.
What products can you buy?
For the masses living everywhere else, a handful of noninvasive products extend some of the benefits that homeowners can access.
Handheld power banks are easily available online and can keep phones charged up. But declining battery costs make larger-format portable batteries more accessible than they used to be.
“Ten years ago, we couldn’t do what we are doing now,” said Eric Lobdell, vice president of sales and product development at home storage company Humless. “We can fit [batteries in] these small packages, we can expand them at a later date, and they’re far more portable and lightweight than they ever were before.”
Utah-based Humless makes a range of home battery options. On the small end, a 200-watt-hour battery weighs 6 pounds, can fit in a backpack and keeps phones and laptops powered up for $239. A 3-kilowatt/6.5-kilowatt-hour system ($7,400) geared for tiny homes can handle TV, freezer and refrigerator backup; it's on wheels and can serve as a temporary installation for renters.
Instead of routing crucial devices to an expensive critical loads panel, though, renters could ask their electrician to run a short conduit from the main breaker box to the AC input of the Humless device, Lobdell said. Then the critical loads output can be wired to a temporary wall mounted subpanel or to a wall-mounted four-plug outlet box. That architecture lets the battery system back up essential needs, and when the customers move out of the dwelling, they just have a few small holes to putty over and paint. Humless packs all the equipment it needs inside the container, so there aren’t multiple boxes that have to be installed and later pulled out.
Of course, with solar unavailable, the batteries will eventually run out of juice. Lobdell said some of his customers who can’t install solar on a roof instead bought thin-film panels, which have gotten more efficient and durable over the years. During an outage, residents can lay these out in the sun to recharge a battery, then put them away at night.
Some utilities supply similar devices to customers who need them. Southern California Edison, for instance, will equip medically qualified, low-income customers in high-fire-risk areas with small batteries sized to power the customer's medical devices. The batteries range from 1.5 kilowatts to 6 kilowatts, with the larger ones situated on a rolling cart. They also come with solar panels to charge from.
The Humless Go 200 is easy to carry and can recharge cell phones and laptops but not heavier-duty appliances. (Photo courtesy of Humless)
Batteries as appliance
Another battery maker, Orison, dedicates itself to designing battery packs that customers can simply plug into the wall like any other appliance. Reaching the population of renters is core to Orison’s mission, CEO Eric Clifton said.
Orison’s batteries run in parallel to the grid but do not export. That means that, on normal days, they can reduce a household’s grid demand and respond to time-based rates; in an outage, they provide localized backup power.
If you want to keep a refrigerator running, Clifton said, you would plug the fridge into the Orison unit, and the Orison unit into the wall. The standard 2.2-kilowatt-hour pack ($2,200 retail plus a required $300 energy monitor) would then be able to isolate the fridge into a mini-grid and keep it running for 48 hours or so. You could do the same thing with a power strip for essential electronics.
“The product was always designed to be an equalizer,” Clifton said. “Not everybody lives in a single-family detached house with solar on the roof. The majority of the market is being totally missed.”
The product is not immediately available. The startup shipped production units for pilot testing in the U.S., Australia and Europe, and expects to ship to customers starting in February (there’s already a backlog of orders). Orison is finalizing consumer financing options for the launch so that customers can pay cash, pay installments over time or lease it with monthly payments.
Orison bucked the residential battery trend by designing products that simply plug into the wall, instead of requiring professional installation. (Photo courtesy of Orison)
Get paid for helping
Just because renters cannot access the full benefits of clean energy doesn’t mean they can’t participate in a decentralized grid. In fact, they can help prevent more scarcity-based outages like the ones that hit California in August.
State leaders implored residents to voluntarily cut back on their power during that heat wave (and people complied). But demand response services like OhmConnect pay people to do that.
“Begging people to save energy to keep the lights on in an emergency is no way to run the grid in the world’s fifth-largest economy,” said CEO Cisco DeVries. “We can empower all Californians to participate in balancing the grid in real time.”
Anyone who gets their own bill from one of California’s investor-owned utilities can sign up for OhmConnect. Participants receive texts telling them to manually reduce electricity use at certain times to receive compensation. But OhmConnect can also set people up with smart plugs, which allow the company to automatically toggle larger appliances, generating greater savings.
Through programs like that, renters can take a more active role in the electricity system, without needing to own real estate. About 30 percent of OhmConnect users are renters, DeVries said. And if such measures succeed in reducing peak demand, they could prevent other renters from getting hit by rolling blackouts.
“You saving energy by yourself, on your own, is not worth anywhere near what it’s worth if we can coordinate together,” DeVries said.