April 1 2015 10:54 AM

Activist Bill Powers lives on homespun energy

BillPowers
Bill Powers stands next to his rooftop solar-panel array at his home in University Heights.
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith


It's easy to miss the rooftop solar panels on Bill Powers' house in University Heights. On the cul-de-sac where he lives, other neighbors have panels, too, and the technology looks commonplace in the urban Southern California landscape.

However, as he rolls up his garage door, the scene gets decidedly more unusual. Opposite stacks of papers and technical drawings, an eye-popping wall of neatly arranged electrical equipment quietly blinks. On the floor sits a 4-foot-high Plexiglas box filled will 12 lead-acid batteries, weighing roughly 1,500 pounds.

"That's the grid connection," says Powers, pointing to a traditional breaker box, which is surrounded by the other apparatus. He flips a switch and pauses. "Now we're not hooked up to the grid." Nothing happens. The lights stay on. And that's the point.

After years of working with electric utilities at the state level, Powers, a sort of accidental activist, has decided to boycott what he sees as a flawed and monopolistic system. Using solar panels, batteries and a backup generator to charge the batteries, the 58-year-old electrical engineer has built an off-the-grid solar system, hoping to inspire others to also divest from big energy.

"The only reason why I'm doing it is to demonstrate that multiple people can and should do it," he says.

Given current technology, becoming energy self-sufficient, especially in sunny San Diego, isn't the hard part, Powers explains. Making it affordable is the challenge.

"The point of this is all economic," he says. "It's got to pencil out."

Spending roughly $40,000 to develop and build his solar system over the last few years, Powers has made the project more financially viable by leasing an electric car. Based on his previous energy and fuel costs, Powers believes his system will pay for itself within 15 years.

However, as technology improves, he hopes the cost for such an off-the-grid system will become significantly more affordable.

"Why does the utility seem to get so agitated about rooftop solar?" he says. "Because it really does have the potential to revolutionize the business."

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The son of a military officer, Powers moved around a lot growing up. He attended high school at the International School Bangkok. At 26, after earning a graduate degree in environmental science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he moved to Ventura and went to work for the Navy as a civilian engineer.

In the mid-'90s, Powers started his own consulting practice helping to develop electric-generation systems for private power-plant developers. Far from a born radical, his original clients were the types of folks he would eventually go up against.

In 2001, the energy crisis hit, and Powers started to have something of an epiphany. By 2010, Sempra Energy—the holding company of San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E)— agreed to pay $400 million to settle accusations of Enronstyle price manipulation during the crisis. Somewhere in there, Powers became an ardent opponent of big energy.

"What struck me about the energy crisis was the blatant rip-off nature of it—that companies that would otherwise be the paragon of the local economy were shaking us down, essentially," he said.

As a result, Powers started working as a consultant with nonprofit groups opposing power plant expansion. For the last decade, he's regularly participated in lawsuits and campaigns trying to stop new development of regional power plants.

Within the environmental community, Powers is viewed as a "leader," said Nicole Capretz, executive director of Climate Action Campaign and chief architect of the city of San Diego's climate action plan.

"He's always been the engineer who has told us that we needed to completely transform our energy grid and change the way we deliver energy," she said. "While it's easy for us to conceptualize the future and what we want to see, he helps us understand the mechanics of how that would manifest."

In his garage, Bill Powers explains his off-the-grid solar system, which includes a dozen 130-pound lead-acid batteries.
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

As part of his advocacy work, Powers has regularly appeared as an expert witness before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the statewide government agency that regulates utilities and approves rate hikes.

"I have to duel with the experts from SDG&E and numerous commissions on the accuracy of what they're saying," he said. "I get cross-examined by them in the hearings, so if I want to maintain my credibility, I have to do my homework."

Officials with SDG&E declined to be interviewed for this story. The company sent an email to CityBeat that outlined its solar-energy program.

"SDG&E's foundational principles for customer rates are to ensure fairness and transparency and to encourage energy conservation," wrote Stephanie Donovan, the utility's senior communications manager. "We are strong supporters of solar and proud of our accomplishment of having nearly one-third of the energy supplied to customers from renewable-energy resources, including utility-scale solar."

The San Diego region produces the second-largest amount of solar energy in the country behind Los Angeles and is fourth in per capita generation, according to a recent report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center.

That's likely due in part to California's weather and its Net Energy Metering program, which controls rates for those with rooftop solar. Such regulation has helped make it easier for companies, such as Northern California-based SolarCity, to offer leases or loans on solar panels that provide instant savings.

"I see the grid evolving to incorporate more distributed solar, more storage for resiliency," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. "I don't necessarily see people retreating into silos off the grid."

At the same time, rate hikes can also drive people to invest in cost-saving technology, such as rooftop solar panels.

Over the last decade, electric rates at the large investor-own utilities have steadily increased, according to data from the CPUC. Reaching an average cost of 18.1 cents a kilowatt hour last year (up from 13.8 cents in 2005), SDG&E's rate increases have consistently outpaced the two other major utilities in the state, Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison.

The CPUC approves rate increases so a utility can recoup from ratepayers the cost of building new infrastructure, such as power plants and transmission lines. However, tacked on to rate increases is also a guaranteed profit margin of around 10 percent.

"That's a perverse incentive because there's no disincentive to just keep building infrastructure," Bass said. "And so something like [rooftop] solar comes along and reduces the need, provides a tremendous benefit, but the utility can't necessarily generate profit from it."

This situation, along with a weak regulatory agency, has lead, over the last decade, to the building of a significant amount of unnecessary and often fossil-fuel-based infrastructure, Powers said.

"There's a lot of news in the press lately about everybody's rates going up, up, up," he said. "Well, the usage hasn't gone up significantly. Really, what it reflects is a captive commission approving everything."

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The list of utility projects that Powers has opposed includes construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Ensenada, the Pio Pico Energy Center and an ongoing fight over construction of the Carlsbad Energy Center, a natural gas power plant.

But, Powers is probably best known for his opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink, a transmission line connecting San Diego to a 1,000-megawatt solar project in Imperial Valley.

"We're going to build a $2-billion extension cord out to Imperial County, and all the disruption that that will cause, so that we can connect to the same panels that are sitting on my roof?" he said. "It's substantially cheaper for me to just put them here."

Powers' desire to build his off-the-grid solar system largely resulted from frustration with the CPUC's decisions to approve development of new centralized powerplant infrastructure. But, while he's cynical about the effectiveness of the state's regulatory structure, he's optimistic about technology's ability to benefit ratepayers. 

"We have almost no growth in power demand, and yet, we're building like gangbusters," he said. "Is it possible that the agency that's supposed to make sure we don't spend any more than we need stepped out of the driver seat, and all of the shareholder-driven corporations that they're supposed to be regulating are driving?

"Even if you capture every commissioner again and again and again, we have an alternative." 

That alternative is called "micro grids," he said. The idea is that an off-the-grid solar system, such as his, can be scaled up to serve an entire city block or even a neighborhood. That means costs could potentially be reduced as residents share infrastructure, such as a backup generator, between multiple houses.

That future may be closer than many realize. Several companies, including SolarCity, now offer solar-powered micro grids. The systems are mostly used in case of a blackout to provide backup power for the military, hospitals and college campuses, as well as to service remote off-grid communities.

While in most cases the micro grids are hooked up to the wider utility grid, the technology has significant implications for ratepayers. Using storage capacity, the system flattens the amount of energy that's drawn from the utility at any one time, significantly reducing demand charges, fees paid by large energy users for peak consumption.

"Let's say you have a whole bunch of electric vehicles that you plug in for one hour in a month," said Daidipya Patwa, SolarCity senior product manager. "That one hour will dictate part of your bill because it's the maximum you pull from the grid at any given point. So when you deploy storage and backup generators, you can lower that maximum that's used at any part of the month."

That innovation has huge implications for empowering the ratepayer, Powers said. While customers may never fully disengage from the grid, technology is making the utility increasingly less necessary.

"It will be a matter of disengaging," he said. "It will be a matter of building micro grids that still are connected [to the utility grid]. But, instead of that being their primary link, it's a backup link."

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com.


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