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In the wake of Uri, solar battery sales soar

Friday, October 8, 2021 by Eniola Longe

Seven months after Winter Storm Uri caused the deaths of more than 200 people around Texas and left millions without power, demand for solar power and home battery systems has skyrocketed.

Austin Energy has received more requests for solar panel and battery installations since the storm than in the past four years combined, said Luis Rivas, a spokesperson for the utility.

Tanzeel Rehman, the sales director at Solar SME Inc., agrees that demand has been rising. “After the snowstorm, we had a lot of homeowners reaching out to us about battery back-up solutions.”

The interest in battery systems became especially acute during the dayslong blackouts throughout Central Texas. While those who had solar power systems installed before the freeze found some relief, a lack of battery systems left many of them without reserves of power to tap into for heat, lighting and other critical needs. 

During the same March-August period in 2020, there were 498 total solar requests, with only 12 requests for solar plus storage. This year, according to Austin Energy, there have already been 85 requests for solar and storage – an 87 percent jump from last year. The total solar requests are presently at 592.

Rivas explained that solar panels produce energy in real time, but do not include energy storage by default. The energy generated is used by the closest load – typically the house where the panels are installed. If the house does not require all of the energy being produced at the exact moment in time, the energy goes into the grid. Without a storage system, homes with only solar panels might have to rely on electricity from the grid at night.

If energy storage (a battery) is installed, a transfer switch would keep the solar energy from being sent to the grid. In case of a power outage, the solar panel could still operate and charge the batteries, Rivas explained. Battery systems can be installed to power the whole home or a separate “critical loads panel,” with only circuits the customer wants to stay on during an outage.  

Austin Energy credits all of the solar energy produced to the customer, regardless of whether the energy was consumed by the home or sent to the grid.

Bob and Diana Christensen have lived in Austin for over 25 years. They have been looking into investing in a solar system for their home, but they were never actually sold on the idea because of the cost. Having a return on their investment has played a huge role in their decision not to go solar just yet. 

“A battery backup system can be between $8,000 and $20,000; that is obviously a lot of money,” said Chloe Holden, an analyst for the energy research consultant Wood Mackenzie. “I don’t know if they are affordable to the average American.”

Holden noted that a solar system saves money in the long run by minimizing power costs. However, she said, prices have slowed uptake of the battery systems for many residents, even those interested in solar energy.

“Until recently, batteries were complicated and expensive, making them a rarity among solar installations,” said Rivas, the Austin Energy spokesperson. “There is a lot of potential for renewable energy paired with energy storage, and we’re working to enable our customers to be a part of these opportunities as the technologies evolve.”

From his sales experience, Rehman anticipates a further reduction in battery prices in another year or two, based on ongoing research and development. The solar battery market also has a lot more competition than it did last year.

Deployment of batteries is on a steady climb. Year-on-year, solar battery prices have continued to fall, with the cost of lithium-ion battery packs dropping to $137 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) last year from more than $1,100 per kWh in 2010, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

To help alleviate the price obstacle, state and federal programs have helped more residents jump on the solar train. Austin Energy offers a free on-demand solar education course, a first step toward accessing a $2,500 solar incentive. The utility’s website also boasts a list of almost 100 participating solar contractors.

At the federal level, a customer could access a one-time, 26 percent solar investment tax credit when filing income taxes. The Biden administration extended the credit another two years at the beginning of 2021.

Unlike the energy efficiency program rebates, the solar incentive boasts a typical wait time of three months or less from application to rebate disbursement, according to Rivas. They are distributed individually. 

Photo by Viktor Lapinskii, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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