Can Solar, Storage and Efficiency Help Us Survive Winters Like This?

February 6, 2023 | 1:29 pm
Maria Chavez
Energy Analyst

Winter storms, which are now raging across the country, are a stark reminder of how important it is for people to prepare for extreme weather, and how catastrophic things can get if they don’t.

In 2021, Winter Storm Uri killed at least 246 Texans. Eight percent of those deaths were attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Without electricity or heat, some people apparently turned to portable generators, which can fill a home with carbon monoxide exhaust.

A report by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services estimated that people aged 60 years or older comprised nearly 68 percent of Storm Uri’s fatalities. Black people, meanwhile, accounted for 40 percent of the fatalities, a disproportionately high percentage by race and ethnicity, highlighting a grim reality about who is most vulnerable during such disasters.

With winter already upon us, can we prevent similar catastrophic consequences and be better prepared for the next storm?

We can overcome winter blackouts

Any interruption of power to a home can result in an outage. This means that for an indefinite amount of time—depending on the cause of the outage—a home can go without electricity for lighting, heating, cooling and other needs that people depend on every day. A risk of unreliable power from the grid—during both good and bad weather—is just one reason to adopt safe and clean behind-the-meter energy solutions.

Here is why solar plus storage plus efficiency could be the right formula:

Start by envisioning a home that might be at risk of experiencing a power outage from storms or other sudden blackouts. This home is equipped with solar photovoltaic panels on its roof or other unobstructed space, which allows it to convert sunlight to electricity. Because no other fuels are required, power generation to this home would not be interrupted by a fossil-fuel supply line disruption. Speaking of reliable supply of power, this home is also equipped with an energy storage system, which means the household can count on the lights staying on even when the sun isn’t shining.

Lastly, this household took steps to make sure it conserves as much of that harnessed power as possible by making the home energy efficient. While this doesn’t refer to any singular type of technology, energy efficiency is the ability to achieve the same result by using less energy. For example, properly insulating a home results in the same level of temperature comfort in cold weather without running the heat longer.

When a severe storm hits and causes widespread outages, this home will stay lit. With solar to generate energy, a battery to discharge when needed, and efficiency measures to conserve energy, this household will be safe.

Don’t skimp on your home’s energy efficiency

A recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory examined how buildings could meet the most basic needs—heating, cooling, lighting and refrigeration—during a blackout by using solar and storage technology. (The study didn’t include efficiency, but noted its importance.)

The good news is the study found that with a residential system, solar and storage could help meet most of the critical power needs during a three-day outage. Outcomes can vary based on geography, system size, and other variables. Another key metric identified by this study was the presence of electric space heating, which can affect the ability of backup resources, such as solar and storage, to cover outage events. The authors also mention that while the length of the outage (beyond one day) wasn’t a huge determinant of success for the solar plus storage system, the day-to-day variability of weather was.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study also found that homes that had the highest “air leakage”—that is, how many cubic feet of cooled or heated air per minute escaped from the house—reduced backup power performance by 20 percent. On the other hand, backup performance was 10 percent to 20 percent higher in homes that had high-efficiency air conditioning when compared to homes that did not have efficient air conditioning. That might not seem very significant, but when heating and cooling capabilities are scarce and temperatures are on the extreme side of the spectrum, energy-efficient homes can improve a family’s chance of surviving a blackout.

Energy efficiency may save money and lives

Most of the time when we talk about energy efficiency, we focus on such benefits as cost savings and lower energy consumption, which certainly are nice to have. Even for a household that is not experiencing a significant energy burden, it would still be nice to save a bit more on the electric bill. However, in an emergency scenario blackout, efficiency can lead to what experts call “passive survivability,” the ability to maintain livable conditions in the event of an extended loss of power or interruptions in heating fuel.

Add solar and storage to the equation, and you’re on your way to riding out a storm safely.

Insulating a home and other efficiency measures provide added value during grid outages by conserving energy and enabling passive survivability. (EE Image database)

According to the US Department of Energy (DOE), efficient buildings—especially residential ones—enable individuals to shelter in place safely during an adverse event. Remember Winter Storm Uri’s death toll statistics? More than 65 percent of the deaths were attributed to exposure to extreme cold temperatures. How many of those deaths were due to people fleeing their home in hopes of finding warmer shelter? Having clean backup power and an efficient home is not just nice to have. It can save lives.

Benefits for me, but not for thee

In an ideal world, everybody would all be able to install solar plus storage and state-of-the-art heat pumps or air conditioners that save energy. Unfortunately, this is not an attainable reality for the people who need them the most. Before we sprint ahead to extol these technologies, we must acknowledge who might be left behind, and what gaps might exist in our research and existing incentives.

Such home solutions as solar panels on the roof, batteries in the garage, and energy-efficient appliances and insulation can have a high upfront cost and a large energy burden—the percentage of gross household income spent on energy costs, which is extremely high for many. Nationally, energy burden is highest for Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) groups, and incentives for reducing that financial burden are not widely available.

Black, Hispanic and Native American households face a disproportionately high energy burden compared to that of white households. (ACEEE)

This lack of access due to cost also should be observed through an equity lens, which shows that there is a greater disproportionate access when it comes to who can afford what. People living paycheck to paycheck, for example, face a greater burden in upfront costs. In this case, immediate discounts could be more valuable than tax credits that can take several months to show up in someone’s bank account.

When we prepare for resilient homes and survivability, we also cannot forget about the medically vulnerable. When researchers model how much backup power is required to meet a household’s energy needs, for example, are they accounting for residents who have to maintain power to run lifesaving medical equipment at home or refrigerate medications?

Other considerations should cover residents who do not own their homes or who have limited or no roof access to install solar panels. As of 2021, 36 percent of US residents are renters. How can we provide clean energy options that will improve survivability during winter blackouts to this large percentage of people?

Clean energy solutions can create a safe haven

There are a number of programs at the federal and state level that help level the playing field. Energy incentives for homeowners in the Inflation Reduction Act, for example, include a 30-percent tax credit for installing solar panels, solar plus storage, or stand-alone storage. Other programs, such as the DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program, help low-income households to become more energy efficient. State energy assistance programs also help reduce the energy burden for low-income households and expand access to solar and other renewables.

That said, there is still plenty of room to make these resources more equitable. Many of the aforementioned barriers, such as roof access or options for renters, require community-level solutions. Removing these obstacles should be high priority for decisionmakers. They should listen closely to local advocates who are familiar with the distinct challenges their respective communities face.

Solar plus storage plus efficiency is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to surviving a radically changing planet. It will enable households to generate and store energy and provide a safe haven from extreme temperatures and an unreliable grid. The next step is to ensure we don’t leave the most vulnerable behind and create policies that are accessible to the people who need them the most. Merely hoping for the best when extreme weather hits is inexcusable. We must demand better access for all to sensible solutions.