A little over a year ago, the EPA launched the Clean Power Plan, with the goal of curbing the amount of carbon emitted by American electric energy generation. The plan consists of four building blocks: (1) improving the efficiency of existing fossil fuel plants, (2) increased utilization of existing low-emitting sources of power, (3) increased use of low and no-emission sources of power, and (4) increased energy efficiency. Private persons who wish to help minimize the environmental impacts of their energy use can install renewable power generation, but doing so can be expensive and complicated.

Most green power technologies, such as solar and wind, are intermittent resources, while home energy use is relatively constant. Without an effective, cost efficient means to store electricity harvested from these resources, excess energy flows back into the grid. Producers of this excess electricity (sometimes called non-utility generators, or NUGs) are left to participate in whatever system their utility offers. Most American NUGs can take advantage of some form of net metering, whereby they are credited for surplus energy that flows back to the grid, with utilities charging for the balance. Some states mandate net metering by law, while in others it is offered voluntarily by utilities. As there is no federal mandate for net metering, programs vary throughout the nation. Some programs offer a premium for green power, while others offer market rate. These plans can be complicated, and risk of being washed away by changing political tides. The complexity and uncertainty of these programs may deter those who wish to produce their own power from doing so.

Enter Elon Musk, and his firm, Tesla, with the new Powerwall home battery system. The unit costs $3500 or less, depending on capacity (7 or 10 kWh models are being offered). The units allow homeowners to store electricity produced at home or taken from the grid. The batteries should encourage adoption of renewable technologies by entities such as homes, businesses and churches in those areas not utilizing net metering. Even where net metering exists, consumers may prefer to store the energy rather than sell it, although the Powerwall system is not yet economical in those markets. By allowing more entities to realize the benefits of becoming renewable power NUGs, the batteries should increase overall utilization of low and no emission sources of power.

Enabling storage of energy purchased at off peak times will also allow consumers to take advantage of off peak pricing without changing their consumption habits. If used in this way, Powerwall units have the potential to smooth out the power demand curve. This would reduce peak demand and allow less efficient plants to idle, increasing utilization of low-emitting sources of power.

The introduction of the Powerwall battery represents an opportunity for individuals and organizations to take meaningful steps toward a clean power future, without requiring utilities and governments to establish an enabling framework to realize a reasonable return on their investment.

Anthony Jackson

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