They call it grid defection.
The first time Barklee Sanders’ power went off, he didn’t think much of it. Before moving to San Francisco’s Treasure Island, he’d lived in Upstate New York and Oklahoma, where harsh weather frequently snuffed out the lights. He had weathered worse storms.
But days later, the power went out again. Within weeks, the rolling darkness became routine.
“When I moved here, I was like, this is not normal,” said Sanders. “But it’s not like you’re notified when you sign a lease. It’s not advertised.”
In the last decade, Treasure Island residents have suffered from years of constant blackouts, leaving the island without power for hours. But calls to upgrade the aging electrical infrastructure have largely gone unanswered.
Though the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Treasure Island Development Authority have completed some near-term projects in recent months, including a new switchyard, The City says it can’t fix the problem entirely until the plans for a massive redevelopment of the island are complete — a process that has been decades in the making.
Fed up with incremental solutions, Sanders is working to provide residents with solar and battery storage systems that can keep critical services, including medical devices, running when blackouts occur.
“We’re taking back our power literally,” said Sanders. “We shouldn’t be beholden to a separate entity to have reliable power in a system that doesn’t work.”
But residents of Treasure Island aren’t the only ones looking to solar and battery storage to supplement their power supply. While Sanders wants to defect from the grid due to necessity, others are leaving by choice.
Kathleen Goforth, a resident of San Carlos, recently retrofitted her house to be energy efficient for the climate. She severed her gas line, installed all electric appliances, including her water heater, and has solar panels soaking up the sun on her roof. “Minimizing my impact on the planet is something I’ve been working on since I was like 13 years old,” she said. “It’s kind of a lifelong quest.”
She and her husband installed the panels in 2015, a stretch for them financially, but they were assisted by a state policy that allows residents to be paid for excess solar electricity generated by their panels.
Over the years, they realized they “were not really getting the full benefit of our solar — especially during the summer we produce more than we need,” said Goforth.
Despite generating a glut of power when the sun was up, the residents found themselves drawing from the grid at night. But by adding a battery, they could use what they produced even after the sun went down. “Part of the equation for me is to generate the power as close to where it’s being used as possible and in a way that requires the least amount of additional infrastructure to be developed,” she said.
While Goforth remains connected to the grid, she said her decision to store power was also motivated by what she saw as the writing on the wall: Intensifying wildfire seasons and heat waves that are starting to cause power shut-offs and wreak havoc on the grid, stressing the physical infrastructure while also revving up the demand for energy to power things like air conditioning.
Goforth and Sanders are two examples of how the plunging cost of solar and battery technology are shifting the tectonics of the energy industry from a publicly shared system overseen by utilities to a wild west of independent or community power generation and storage.
And with both energy prices and demand slated to increase as we head into the summer months, more may be lured away. Called grid defection, it’s a trend that Will Gorman, a Ph.D. candidate at the energy and resources group at UC Berkeley, is watching closely.
“I think that defection now is bubbling up as an important point of discussion because with increasing wildfires…PG&E is going to have to spend a lot of money to make their transmission and distribution infrastructure safer – and that’s going to have a big impact on prices,” said Gorman. “As those prices go up, there will be an even stronger incentive to install solar technologies.”
While the rooftop solar industry has exploded in the last decade, “the thing that has now made defection even more tangible is the falling costs of batteries,” said Gorman.
Where in the past “off-grid living” was primarily reserved for the remotely situated or the uber-rich, now even some condo buildings in San Francisco have disconnected using storage.
Since last year, Catherine Von Burg, founder, and CEO of SimpliPhi Power, a technology company that manufactures storage solutions, has seen a 50% increase in the energy storage market. Her company alone is “40% above where we were in the first quarter of last year, so it is growing more and more.”
But having a way to store power does not necessarily mean total disconnection. Von Burg’s company, which helped former Gov. Jerry Brown go off-grid, also supplies battery technology for people who want to supplement their power.
“It’s not a zero-sum game between top-down, centralized transmission and distribution versus distributed customer-sited generation and storage — it’s an ‘and’ not an ‘either-or,’” said Von Burg. “The truth is that the grid and all that infrastructure is an asset. But this asset is old, it’s out of date, and it needs to be supported, or integrated with other assets.”
Still, experts like Gorman think it’s unlikely places like San Francisco will be able to defect from the grid altogether. “The notion that you’re going to be able to power The City of San Francisco with all this rooftop (solar), or a lot of distributed energy, I think would be incredibly challenged,” he said.
But back on Treasure Island, Sanders says he can’t wait around for The City to act. Although he knows it’s not a permanent solution, he has managed to get a solar trailer to the island, which allows some people to keep the lights on when darkness descends.