Microgrids offer alternative power in Texas

Could solar and battery powered energy be the solution to power outages in Texas?

HOUSTON – As Winter Storm Uri blew into Texas in February, it brought with it frigid temps, icy roads, snow and massive power outages. Millions of Texans were left in the dark by blackouts mandated by Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s electric grid.

Kenneth Mercado, executive vice president of electric utility at Centerpoint Energy, testified before the Texas Senate at the end of February and said even though his crews were prepared to curtail power to local customers, there was no way to anticipate just how many orders ERCOT would issue.

“At 12:17 a.m. Monday morning, ERCOT issued the first emergency order with the potential load curtailment,” he told senators. “So that was our first warning. And at 1:25 a.m. ERCOT issued the order for 1,000 megawatts. Our share of that was 25 percent.”

“This was the first, which we didn’t know at the time -- we had no way of anticipating it at the time -- the first of 59 orders that we would receive from that early Monday morning and Wednesday night, around midnight -- 59 orders,” Mercado added.

Those 59 orders left millions of Houstonians without power for days.

Power from a different source

Just south of Houston, Roger Boneno prepared his Sugar Land home for the frigid temps.

“I did all my pipes,” Boneno said. “Wrapped them up. Made sure they were dry, and of course, we did the sprinkler system because we didn’t want a big fountain.”

As Uri blew through and knocked most residents off the main power grids, Boneno and his family were nice and warm in their home, watching the storm’s aftermath play out on television.

The reason? Boneno’s home is solar- and battery-powered by Houston power company Sunnova.

“I produce enough power to power my house and keep (it) going,” he said. “For me, it was mostly, it was almost a ... non-event because it was really cold outside. I did a lot of watching, but we were pretty set.

His solar-and-battery home produced so much power, he was able to send it back to his power company’s grid and help power other homes.

“I was reaching out to all the people I know, and invited them over.”

Boneno also said his solar panels also offer him a big savings on his power bill.

“Electricity bill is like $20 bucks,” he said. “It’s really super cheap, and most of that’s the fixed charges.”

His rate is fixed with Sunnova for 25 years so he does not worry about the utility rates going up because he produces the power to his own home.

Like many who were left in the dark last month, Roger said keeping the power flowing was truly a matter of life or death for him.

“I’m a Type 1 diabetic, so being without power for a long time is not really good for me.”

Microgrids: A big power source

Sunnova is Boneno’s provider.

“We’re a wireless power company, said John Berger, the company’s CEO.

Sunnova serves residential customers and has partners who make solar panels, batteries and other electronic pieces to control the power. Sunnova then brings all those pieces together with equipment from Tesla and Generac to power homes on their own grid.

“We put together a mini utility in your house and then we operate it, and then we put all of the homes together in a neighborhood and that can be called a microgrid,” Berger said. “Then we operate all the homes and we can do things like send energy back into the local monopoly where we can get some money for that, and that further helps our customers, over a period of time to, to reduce their bills.”

If a home is outfitted with both solar panels and batteries, which store the power produced, these microgrids allow customers to stay online and connected, even if their neighbors are not.

It also helps save on utility bills.

So what’s the cost of a setup? According to Sunnova, prices vary based on the size of the home and the company offers multiple financing options for solar and solar plus storage, for little to no money down. Pricing also depends on the manufacturer of the panels, how many and what type of batteries a customer chooses, and the customer’s individual needs within their home.