Overhead power lines are seen in Houston, Texas, US, on February 17, 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF
Overhead power lines are seen in Houston, Texas, US, on February 17, 2021. Picture: REUTERS/ADREES LATIF

When Wim Coekaerts bought a hillside lot to build his Californian dream house, there was an old horse barn, a grove of olive trees and lovely views of Silicon Valley. But there was no electricity, and the nearest utility pole to his bucolic acre was about 170m away.

The town of Woodside requires new homes without utility service to pay for wires to be buried underground. Coekaerts faced a choice: pay Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) roughly $100,000 for engineering work and foot the enormous additional cost of the trenching, or engineer a more personal fix.

Coekaerts, who grew up in Belgium, is a man who values reliable, stable electricity — something PG&E has not always provided in recent years amid increasingly ferocious wildfires. And it’s not just California. This week, a winter storm has paralysed the grid in much of Texas, highlighting just how fragile the legacy system is.

Coekaerts is senior vice-president of software development at Oracle, a legend in the open source community and is the longest serving board member of the Linux Foundation.

His house is the exact opposite of a small cabin: it was designed by an architect and spans 260m². Coekaerts started puzzling through the engineering challenges: What if he cut ties with PG&E? What would it take to build his own self-sufficient energy system, with the electricity produced and stored on site?

He started researching microgrids, a small energy grid with control capability, which typically means it can disconnect from the traditional grid. Coekaerts wanted to be autonomous from the beginning. He started looking at Tesla’s energy products: the home battery known as the Powerwall and larger systems called Powerpacks.

“This is not a tiny home,” says Coekaerts, as contractors put the finishing touches on the three-bedroom limestone house. “A lot of people say they are off grid, but they have a tiny house where they only need two solar panels. I didn’t want to have a lifestyle where I’m just getting by. This is a normal house with normal energy consumption, and I can charge my car if needed.”

In the developing world, microgrids may leapfrog traditional utilities, much in the way that mobile phones made the need for landlines obsolete. In the US, military bases, universities, prisons and hospitals are turning to microgrids as a way to operate independently from the grid. The Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, about a half-hour’s drive east of Oakland, has a microgrid that allows it to operate as an island for extended periods.

Individuals are also pursuing them. Larry Ellison, who serves on the board of directors of Tesla and is the chair and chief technology officer of Oracle, has expressed interest in a microgrid for Lanai, the island in Hawaii that he bought in 2012. Tesla disclosed in a regulatory filing that director James Murdoch purchased a Powerpack system from the company for $600,000 in 2019 and that in 2020, a company affiliated with Ellison “entered into an agreement to obtain preliminary design services from us for an estimated $400,000, relating to the potential future implementation of a Tesla Energy system”.

PG&E has more than half a million residential solar customers, and at least 18,000 have installed battery energy storage systems. You hear a lot in California about “solar plus storage”: solar panels to harvest sunlight into electricity, paired with a home battery that can store the electricity for later use. Tesla markets the Powerwall as a backup for when the grid goes down. The Powerpack is mostly sold to businesses and utilities.

Coekaerts didn’t want his system to function as a backup to the grid: he wanted to be independent of the grid. So through Luminalt, the San Francisco company that installed his solar system, he was able to get a Powerpack, which is about 17 times what a single Powerwall provides. Tesla representatives have told him it is the first residential Powerpack installation that they know of, though others are in the pipeline. The total cost, including permits, labour for the installation and a federal tax credit for the solar system, was roughly $300,000.

His system, which was activated in November, combines 27kW of photovoltaic solar panels with a 232kWh Tesla Powerpack. There are five ground-mounted arrays of 15 solar panels each, or 75 solar panels total, stretching across the yard. The Tesla Powerpack, which on the outside just looks like a massive white box with Tesla’s logo, emits a low hum and is protected and surrounded by a tasteful wooden fence. During long summer days, the system will probably generate far more electricity than he needs, and neighbours have joked that they’ll get out their extension cords.

PG&E has become something of a villain to many Californians in recent years. The state has staggered through increasingly devastating wildfire seasons, and some of the blazes were sparked by ageing utility infrastructure. Faulty PG&E equipment ignited the November 2018 Camp Fire inferno, which destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.

In March, PG&E’s residential customers will see their rates increase as the utility, which recently emerged from bankruptcy, seeks to upgrade its equipment. When there’s high wind and fire danger, PG&E — which provides natural gas and electric service to roughly 15-million people from the Oregon border to Bakersfield — proactively shuts off power to tens of thousands of customers. Costs keep rising and outages are becoming more routine.

But it’s not just PG&E. This week the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of electric power to more than 26-million Texas customers, was crippled by a snowstorm that froze wind turbines, kicked natural gas plants offline and resulted in widespread outages that  left millions of people shivering in their homes.

The climate crisis is here to stay, and finding ways to function independently of utilities is gaining traction.

“On the one hand, it’s an engineering marvel to produce all of the needs of a modern house with locally produced power,” says Rich Brown, a research scientist in the building technologies and urban systems division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. “On the other hand, it’s still expensive.”

The future, says Brown, is aggregation: it is far more cost effective to build a microgrid if you’re serving multiple people, like an entire city block or a new subdivision. Brown and colleagues at the Berkeley Lab are working on a project called “Ecoblock”, in the Fruitvale neighbourhood of Oakland, which will serve about 25 housing units.

“Low-income neighbourhoods tend to have more pollution, and the capital required to go solar or buy a battery is just too high,” says Brown. “There’s an equity issue. Ecoblock could be a model for how you could collectively take a neighbourhood and make it more resilient, and do it cost effectively.”

Coekaerts agrees. “When it comes to apartment buildings and new homes, instead of using the normal power grid they should do something like this,” says Coekaerts. “It seems like a real scalable solution.”

Coekaerts knows that he is a rare early adopter. Besides being inherently tech-savvy, he has the willingness — and the ample financial resources — to prove the concept. He’s kept a detailed history of how his microgrid has performed over the past few months in hopes of sharing the information, maybe via a YouTube video, to educate others on the process. His main message is that it works: he has zero concern about running out of power.

“The climate is changing, and you see that every year it gets worse,” says Coekaerts. “I’m not a prepper, but I want to be self-reliant. And there’s a cool factor to this. If I can do this, other people can do it too. It’s nice to be on the forefront of something that is coming.”

Bloomberg

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