Unplugging from an unstable electric grid

August 16, 2013

Zak Rosen

(WBEZ/Zak Rosen)
Susan Sills proudly stands in front of her generator.

Matt Grocoff and his family live in what they call the country’s oldest net-zero home. That means, with help from solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and smart appliances, they produce more energy than they use.  The victorian house was built over 100 years ago.  It’s situated on a quiet street in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“You can see, it’s a Norman Rockwell style house,” Grocoff said. “It’s not a science experiment. We’ve got the two rocking chairs and an American flag on the front porch. And a Chevrolet on the driveway. The only real difference is that ours is a Chevy Volt and the white picket fence is made from lumber that came from a tree that was killed by lighting nearby by a local sawyer.”

The Grocoffs call their experiment the Mission Zero House, in honor of Ray Anderson, the carpet tycoon who, in 1994, pledged to transform his multi-national carpet company into a net-zero model of sustainability.

“So we figured if they can do that with a multinational corporation, why not do it with a 100 plus year old Victorian home,” Grocoff said.

Ten years ago this week, North America experienced the largest blackout in its history. That event led to new laws and efforts to improve the reliability of our nation’s power source. But some consumers have taken matters into their own hands.

To Grocoff, his experiment isn’t radical at all.  It’s practical.

“If you don’t make your home more energy efficient, if you don’t put solar panels on the roof. It costs more not to do that,” Grocoff said.

After rebates, incentives and a federal tax credit, the solar panels cost the Grocoff’s $15,000. In just 10 years, they estimate they’ll save around $35,000 in energy costs.  However, these savings don’t mean they’re not susceptible to blackouts. 

“When the grid goes down, we go down,” Grocoff said. “Unfortunately the way solar inverters are designed right now, if we’re putting energy back to the grid during a power outage, they can’t work on the power lines, so the system is designed to shut down grid-tied solar, so that it’s not distributing that energy anymore.”

Grocoff compares the current grid to a string of old Christmas lights. 

“One bulb goes out, they all go out,” he said. “What you see during major blackouts when the grid goes down or storms like Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, really shows why we need to start thinking about resilient forms of energy distribution and production.”

Generation nation

Susie Sills, however, will be okay if the lights go out in her region of Southeast Michigan. In August of 2003, roughly 50 million North Americans lost power. Sills was not one of them.  That’s because in her backyard, she has a generator that runs her entire household using natural gas. 

Sills lived through enough basement floods and power outages to finally have an excuse to get the generator. 

“This was a gift from my parents,” Sills said. “One year they asked what I’d like for...I don’t know if it was a birthday or an anniversary, I decided that this was something everyone would benefit from in my household, and occasionally even some neighbors.”

With an unending string of extreme weather events in recent years, there’s been an uptick in generator sales throughout the United States. The natural gas generators can cost from five to over $30,000. The portable, petroleum operated generator are more affordable.

“It’s difficult for people to think about the work and the outlay, the expense, until they’ve lost their power, their comforts and then everybody usually is calling their local electrician or a company that can help them install the generator,” Sills said.

Invest now, save (money and energy) later

Sills and Grocoff are not alone. Generac, the company that makes Sills’ generator, has seen a steady increase in the sales of their residential products. And last year an estimated $11.5 billion worth of solar electric products were installed in the United States.

Grocoff is a big believer in up-front investments. He isn’t just interested in keeping the lights on. He wants to change the way we use and distribute energy. His family has invested tens of thousands of dollars in solar panels, insulation and geothermal heating and cooling.  And already it’s paying off.  His July energy bill was negative $79.84.

But Grocoff feels like he won’t be completely safe from outages until the country creates a decentralized system of energy production and distribution. 

“A more resilient system would combine localized power storage, localized power usage, so that a certain section could continue to use energy while another section was down,” Grocoff said. “And if we can decentralize energy and make it more like the Internet, where it’s a networked system. When the system is networked, there’s different types of technology, different redundancies and backups.”

So the challenge becomes, how can people figure out a way to raise the capital they’ll need to make their homes sustainable.

“The way we were able to leverage all that capital financially is no longer available to folks,” Grocoff said.”It changes every single day.  It changes so much that I don’t even try to memorize it all anymore.  It changes from county to county, city to city, state to state. Every state has a different group of regulations, every state has a different group of incentives, and its impossible for anybody, there are no experts that know this because its changing so rapidly.”

There is, however a website that compiles state incentives for renewable energy opportunities.

Furthermore, The Department of Energy is sponsoring a contest called SunShot.  The idea is to catalyze affordable residential solar installations across the country. They’re offering up to $10 million in cash awards to the first three teams that can put solar on roofs for an average of $1 per watt for non-hardware costs.