Dec 13, 2019 - Energy & Environment

PG&E electricity shut-offs drive Californians' interest in solar power

A man on a roof installing a solar panel.
Photo: Andrew Aitchison/InPictures via Getty Images

The solar industry came out with new data yesterday showing record residential installations in the third quarter, edging out prior highs in 2016.

The intrigue: One part of the quarterly report that caught my eye confirms that PG&E's power shut-offs are driving interest in solar-plus-battery systems, though the real effect won't be known for a while.

By the numbers: Overall, the U.S. residential market grew by 712 megawatts of installed capacity as 15 states saw their biggest gains ever.

  • The total solar market grew by 2.6 gigawatts of capacity, up 25% from the prior quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Where it stands: Let's look at California, the biggest U.S. market where nearly 300 megawatts of residential capacity was added in Q3.

  • One driver of the record residential growth there is demand stemming from looming state mandates for solar deployment in new homes.

Why you'll hear about this again: The report says an "unexpected" driver of demand is "increased consumer interest in solar and solar-plus-storage options in response to dissatisfaction with California utilities."

  • "This disaffection has a long history but most recently stems from Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) which have left hundreds of thousands of utility customers without electricity, often for days at a time."
  • It's the latest sign of forecasts that the outages will spur battery sales.

What we're watching: How much this might help juice deployment in the future.

  • Wildfires and the risks to power supply — and the potential for planned blackouts — have been a known in California for quite a while, so that has likely led to some sales that are showing up in the Q3 numbers.
  • But PG&E's massive intentional outages to cut fire risks began in October, so analysts will have a much better sense of their impact on solar-plus-storage purchases in data that's not captured in this report.

The big picture: The report's finding of growing interest in solar and batteries stemming from the outages is consistent with prior signs of this trend.

  • Last month, for instance, Sunrun's CEO said on an earnings call that customers are increasingly choosing their "Brightbox" service that combines solar with batteries.
  • The Wood Mackenzie report also notes that national media attention to the shut-offs is increasing interest in solar paired with batteries outside the state.
  • Greentech Media reported yesterday that California regulators are shifting the focus of an existing distributed generation incentive program to "giving battery-solar backup systems to those at greatest risk of wildfires and blackouts."

But, but, but: The preemptive power outages are spurring interest in backup power in several forms.

  • This NBC News piece is among several of late about consumers' snapping up fossil fuel-powered home generators.

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