Interest in solar batteries spikes after Hurricane Irma power outages

In this file photo, solar panels can be seen installed on the first two of 500 planned single family homes at Polo Run in Lakewood Ranch.
In this file photo, solar panels can be seen installed on the first two of 500 planned single family homes at Polo Run in Lakewood Ranch. jajones1@bradenton.com

The morning after Hurricane Irma hit Florida last month, nearly 70,000 power customers in Manatee County were left in the dark and without air-conditioning and other inconveniences that come with having no power.

As the days passed, the count slowly dwindled, but it wasn’t until 10 days after the storm that Florida Power & Light — Manatee County’s largest electric utility — delivered on a promise that the west coast would have its lights back, at least in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Solar energy is becoming more and more popular, and Irma may have a hand in it.

“We are definitely seeing a heightened interest,” said Dale Gulden, president of Manatee County-based Solar Direct. “I think some of it’s direct backlash to the hurricanes where homeowners and business owners are angry.”

Gulden said he doesn’t personally have solar panels, and he was without power at his home for three days and about twice as long at his office. He called it the “worst outage” he has experienced in his nearly 40 years in Florida.

Just over one-tenth of a percent of Manatee FPL customers, or around 260, are net metered, according to the utility’s spokesperson Alys Daly. This means that they sell excess energy they generate back to the utility, and most likely have rooftop solar operations, she said.

It’s not certain how many of those customers were powerless after Irma, but at least some of Sarasota-based Brilliant Harvest’s customers were surprised that their lights went out.

“We’ve definitely had folks that had somebody else install their solar and they said, ‘I didn’t know it was going to shut down,’” Brilliant Harvest founder Bill Johnson said.

Solar customers have two options when installing panels on their homes: with or without battery backup. Both systems are still connected to the electric grid and both still can sell back excess electricity they generate back to the utility company. But if the electric grid is down and the customer doesn’t have a battery, which can cost several thousand dollars each, their power is effectively out, too.

This is because electricity follows the path of least resistance. If there’s nowhere for that solar-generated electricity to go, it’ll flow to the grid, which creates a potentially dangerous situation for the linemen fixing the issue.

“The interest in battery backup systems has been tremendous (since Irma),” Johnson said.

Just like solar over the past couple of years, batteries have increased in their efficiency and density. Companies like Tesla and LG Chem have been big players, Johnson said.

For now, these battery storage systems could keep the air-conditioning running full blast for about an hour, Gulden said. But used sparingly, it could be a better alternative to using a generator or nothing at all.

“As long as the weather’s good, for the most part, the sun should keep the battery running,” he said.

Johnson added that some municipalities — he wouldn’t divulge which ones they were as they were in negotiations — expressed interest in solar battery storage, especially for such critical infrastructure such as emergency operations centers and lift stations.

To prevent a lift station outage and potential wastewater spills, Johnson said municipalities have to consider maintaining generators, getting them out to the stations and the cost of fuel.

“The big term now is resiliency, infrastructure resiliency,” Johnson said. “This is one of the big ways to do that.”

Hannah Morse: 941-745-7055, @mannahhorse