Disasters and outages wake homeowners to the benefits of home microgrids

July 15, 2022
The Silvies Valley Ranch, a rural, eco-friendly luxury resort in eastern Oregon, serves the growing demand among US homeowners for residential microgrids. And it’s not alone.

The Silvies Valley Ranch, a rural, eco-friendly luxury resort in eastern Oregon that has home microgrids, is slowly moving forward. It is one of several projects throughout the US responding to growing demand from US homeowners seeking residential microgrids for resilience and sustainability.

Either planned or already in place at Silvies Valley Ranch are homes, ranging in size from 2,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet, that come with their own solar off-grid microgrid along with a Humless Universal System, which is a battery system. It also includes a propane genset for when batteries run low or the weather is bad.

The ranch chose solar microgrids because they’re less expensive than bringing grid electricity to the remote, mountainous region — and more sustainable. The systems include 4.2 kW to 7 kW of solar plus 20 kWh to 40 kWh of energy storage, said Eric Lobdell, vice president of sales and product development for Humless, the company providing the equipment for the microgrids.

The COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain challenges and labor shortages have slowed development of the ranch, but the project is inching forward, with eight to 10 new homes operating off-grid now and three to five  expected to be completed this summer, said Lobdell. The ranch’s goal is to build 600  homes of three different sizes.

The former dude ranch boasts a green lifestyle. For example, residents and visitors are prohibited from driving gas-powered cars. Instead they have to park their cars and drive golf carts.

People see grid as fragile

Meanwhile, Humless, like other residential microgrid developers, is seeing demand for home microgrids increase in response to climate-change related storms, drought and fires that spark grid outages.

“We’re seeing more requests for power security and emergency power backup for homes than ever before,” said Lobdell. “The population has woken up to the fact that grids can be old and fragile. As people have more power outages, they suddenly realize emergency backup is important.”

Humless has a number of potential residential neighborhood microgrid projects in the works. They include a 200- to 400-home neighborhood in the mountains of Utah, 60 homes outside of Lake Powell, Utah, and another neighborhood in northern California, he said. His customers tend to be located in areas like Texas and California that are experiencing outages because of heat, hurricanes and wildfires. In addition, people living in remote areas, including areas of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, are seeking resilience.

The neighborhood microgrids not only provide resilience; they allow neighbors to share power, said Lobdell.

“Some homes may not get enough sun or have shade from a cliff. They won’t produce as much solar. We might plug in a centralized system that feeds all the homes,” Lobdell said. That system can allow homes to share power. For example, if residents are on vacation, they might share extra energy with their neighbors. And if one resident uses more power than others, that homeowner would have to pay more, he said.

EVs, housing boom drive residential microgrids

Emera Technologies, which offers front-of-the-meter residential microgrids — sometimes rate based by utilities — is also seeing an uptick in interest.

“What we saw over the pandemic was a rapid acceleration of the electric vehicle (EV) momentum. Also the needs inside the home proliferated. The housing market started to boom. That continued to add fire to the case for residential microgrids,” said Bobbi Dillow-Walsh, vice president of sales and commercial development at Emera Technologies.

Emera focuses on communities with up to 50 homes, providing rooftop solar and battery energy storage in each home. The company provides natural gas backup for emergencies.

Utilities across the country have expressed interest in front-of-the-meter residential microgrids, especially in the West, Southeast, Mid-Atlantic and Texas, she said.

A recent Emera Technologies pilot project is located in the Southshore Bay housing development in Hillsborough County, Florida, that serves 37 homes. In this case, Emera Technologies makes each home into a nanogrid with its own solar, batteries and control technology. An inverter converts the microgrid’s direct current (DC) power to alternating current for use inside the home. The homes are connected together via a cable network system — a DC bus — that loops through the neighborhood. This allows the homes to share their energy resources.

For this project, Emera Technologies partnered with Tampa Electric (TECO), a utility in west central Florida. TECO owns and operates the microgrid. The Florida Public Service Commission said it would let TECO recover costs for the $1.99 million Southshore Bay pilot project.

And an Emera project got a boost from a $200,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration–awarded to Pepco– to construct a residential microgrid to power a small subdivision of highly energy-efficient single family homes in Fairmount Heights, Maryland.

Meanwhile, Emera has signed a non-disclosure agreement with a major utility in California, said Dillow-Walsh.

“This system [from Emera Technologies] comes at a perfect time for environments like California, where energy capacity constraints and risk of wildfires have become common topics for that energy landscape,” she said.

And builders are beginning to approach Emera Technologies about microgrids for communities seeking sustainability and resilience, she said. Builders and developers are approaching Emera because homeowners are asking, “How reliable is the power, and how fast is the internet. Is there water available?” she said. Homeowners also seeking ways to ensure the electrical needs of EVs can be met.

No grid at all

In addition, OhmGrid, launched in May, is seeing interest in its off-grid residential microgrids in response to worries about grid reliability. The company wants to work with 10,000 customers by 2024, with the eventual goal of 40,000 customers. The company sees itself eventually becoming something like a national utility — a contemporary version — serving a network of off-grid systems.

Much of the demand for residential microgrids is coming from homeowners whose nerves were jangled by the effects of the February 2021 Texas freeze, which knocked out power to two out of three Texans and shut off water to nearly half. The Texas Department of Public Health linked 210 deaths to the disaster. California’s wildfires and public safety power shutoffs are also a wake-up call for homeowners.

“We are building now mostly in areas where there is a weak grid. The Texas ice storm made people wake up. People are saying they want emergency power,” said Lobdell.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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