Rethinking the future of refueling

How solar plus storage plus EVs equals energy freedom.

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Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy U.S. and co-founder of Evolve Energy, which was acquired by Octopus Energy in 2020. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

Many questions remain around the circumstances of the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that disrupted the delivery of fuel to millions of Americans in states from New York to Texas this month. Over the course of just a few days, one of the largest pipelines in the country ground to a halt, leading to long gas lines, rising prices and fears that fuel supply on the East Coast may run dry. But as federal leaders and industry experts look to answer the who, what, how and why, it is important to note that this incident could have been avoided, even when speaking from a pure renewable energy perspective, rather than a cybersecurity perspective.

Instead of being dependent on one central source of fuel — in this case the Colonial Pipeline that provides 45 percent of fuel along the East Coast — where any single system failure can have serious consequences on energy supply and demand, individuals who rely on solar have more options to keep their lives powered and fuel in the tank” in times of an energy crisis.

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The launch of Ford’s F-150 Lightning battery-powered pickup truck last week, for instance, indicates a new option for the average consumer. The most popular gas-fueled pickup truck, now turned electric, is the first electric vehicle that can also be used as a mobile power plant, offering the ability to significantly power a home during an emergency. The importance of this type of relationship, where an EV can continue to fuel critical infrastructure despite shocks to the energy system, shows how our nation can become energy-resilient through the adoption of renewables.

People who switch to EVs like the F-150 have the ability to fuel their own vehicle at home through renewables and do not need to be concerned with gasoline shortages that come with pipeline or refinery interruptions. When paired with rooftop solar, they can be self-reliant and know they have the fuel security they need to continue to power their lives — the sun rises every day to put fuel in the tank for their cars, personal electronics and home needs.

This reality grows stronger as the adoption of battery storage and community solar continues to accelerate. With community solar, where community-sized renewable and battery projects are tied to specific parts of local feeders or substations, local groups of customers can be shielded from any interruptions of the bulk power supply and transmission or grid failures. Through these systems, communities can keep their lives powered while also providing power to their neighbors by exporting excess power back to the local grid.

Lessons learned and looking ahead

The Colonial Pipeline’s single point of failure is similar to what we saw happen in Texas earlier this year. When natural-gas plants and natural-gas pipelines froze over in the record-breaking cold temperatures, this essential energy infrastructure on which millions of Texans rely became completely inoperable, leaving countless people and homes without heat or electricity. Because fossil fuels rely on a system of interconnected and complex relationships, when one part of the system goes down, massive disruptions happen. Those with rooftop solar and battery storage, however, had an additional level of fuel security and were able to make it through the Texas winter storm with their power intact. Some even exported energy back to the grid and were paid cash to help stabilize the grid for everyone else.

These types of events, which we are only likely to see more of, demonstrate the weaknesses of pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure caused by their many single points of failure. The main issue at hand is not about needing renewables for decarbonization, but rather, how renewables at the grid edge — at homes and in communities — can provide a level of energy security and self-resilience that fossil fuels cannot.

That is why, as President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan that puts clean energy at the forefront continues to be debated in Congress, it is critical that infrastructure spending goes beyond just repairing roads and bridges and embraces a future that enables true energy resilience. While we do not see energy in the same way we see our streets, our highways or our bridges, it is an incredibly important resource that underpins our livelihoods.

Industry challenges

There are certainly challenges the energy industry will need to overcome in order to balance the grid and maintain energy output as reliance on renewables grows. During a blackout, households with rooftop solar-plus-storage need to be more intentional about energy use if they want to both recharge their EV and power daily household appliances like air conditioning, refrigerators and other electronics. 

This dynamic, however, is completely dependent on personal needs, where energy use can be stretched or compressed based on a household’s activities. For instance, a household with a large rooftop solar system could generate 60 kilowatt-hours a day, or the equivalent of 240 EV miles. That is enough electricity to run the AC, power their refrigerator, do a single load of laundry and charge their laptop, while still having enough charge to give an EV 80 miles of range.

Rooftop solar and storage should not be presented as a way to defect” from the grid but instead as a way to build bottom-up resilience to the individual and the broader grid when orchestrated intelligently with grid connected neighbors. A renewable energy ecosystem consisting of microgrids, community solar and rooftop solar, which are all a part of President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, create that patchwork of bottom-up resiliency. Load flexibility, or the ability to balance energy supply and demand, is what stitches this all together. The Biden administration’s plan will accelerate the adoption of these distributed and resilient resources. In addition to providing massive decarbonization benefits, these resources can also enable our communities to have more security against unforeseen shocks to the system. That kind of freedom should be appealing to everyone.

(Article image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.) 

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy U.S. He is the co-founder of Evolve Energy, which was acquired by Octopus Energy in 2020. Michael has a background in finance and holds an MBA from Harvard.