By Bill Howley
During the recent power blackout tens of thousands of West Virginians practiced what electricity experts call "distributed generation," the production of electricity in small generating units close to where power is used.
The one thing we learned from the blackout is that if you can produce your own power, you don't have to depend on the power companies to send it to you over their deteriorating distribution system.
Most people think of power production as something they only do in emergencies, so they buy gasoline generators. These generators are noisy, produce toxic fumes, are expensive to run and depend on a fuel that is often in short supply exactly when you need it most. Once the emergency is over, the generator goes back in the garage and doesn't provide any value until the next blackout.
There is another way that is quiet, economical and will produce electricity for your home when the blackout is over. A solar panel array connected to a battery storage system, if it is sized properly, will get you through a week or more of no grid power with no noise, little or no fuel cost and no fumes. These kinds of systems are now affordable for most middle-income families.
These systems would be affordable to even more West Virginians if the Legislature and the Public Service Commission provided the kinds of incentives and renewable energy credits that most other states have adopted. Instead, in 2009, Gov. Joe Manchin and the Legislature passed an Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard law that effectively blocks any support to homeowners with solar power systems.
If you think a solar power system is too expensive for your family or business, factor in how much the 2012 blackout cost you, along with the December 2009 blackout. Then factor in how much your electric rates have been going up in recent years, and how much more they'll rise to pay for emergency repairs from this new outage. Because your solar panels produce electricity every day (even on cloudy days), they will cut your electric bill all year long.
If you used a generator to produce electricity during the blackout, you know how reliable it is. Now you can begin to build on the expertise you gained from that experience and build yourself a smarter system. There are a number of solar power installers around our state. Contact them and get a cost estimate for the kind of system you want.
If you want to start with a backup system, you need a battery bank, but you don't need to create a system that will power your whole house. Identify exactly how much power you absolutely need in a blackout and build a system that will meet those needs. Let emergency planning be your starting point. You can always add panels later.
Many people don't have good sun exposure on their properties. If West Virginia's utility regulators were focused on real reliability, they would have supported small community power generation sharing using what are called "microgrids." Microgrids work great in urban areas where homes and businesses are closer together. Neighbors invest together in building a solar panel array in the location with the best sun exposure and share the power through computerized "smart grid" switching. During blackouts, the microgrid can be isolated from the larger grid and power stored in batteries can be shared.
So far, West Virginia political leaders have stood back and watched as our state's electrical system deteriorates from lack of investment by our out-of-state electric companies, and electric rates spiral upwards, paying for nothing but more and more frequent emergency repairs. They have made no effort to support the development of real reliability using community-based electricity.
If you want real reliability in your electrical system, don't wait around for politicians. Do your homework and design a home- or business-based system that doesn't depend on failed state leadership or power companies that won't invest in our state's obsolete grid. Then hire West Virginia businesses and West Virginia workers to make it happen.
Howley, of Chloe, is chairman of the Steering Committee of the Coalition for Reliable Power and writes at The Power Line, the View from Calhoun County and the Coalition for Reliable Power, web sites about electricity policy issues.