Power to the people

A new solution brings affordable battery backup electricity to customers of Green Mountain Power

WESTMINSTER — Several years ago, as I sat in the dark, huddled in a sleeping bag next to the wood stove in the middle of the night in the middle of a blizzard, power long gone, I was once more contemplating giving in and spending a fortune on a generator.

I was arguing with myself about whether it would be worth the expense and bother.

The cold and dark had drained any energy and motivation I would have needed to even make my way to the basement to start it up, so what would be the point, anyway?

And, I thought, why couldn't they invent a battery that could be used for backup power when the electricity went off?

Actual people once told me that a battery strong enough to power a whole house would have to be so big that it would take up more space than anyone's basement had. “Good idea, but it just wouldn't work,” they said.

I thought about old early computers, the ones they'd built before technology had allowed tiny-ness - the ones that also took up more room than anyone's basement - and how eventually they'd solved that problem. I thought about how that basement-sized computer had become a laptop - a laptop with more memory than anyone in the era of the basement one could even have imagined possible. “Surely, it wouldn't be too long until they come up with the technology to do the same thing with a battery,” I thought.

And so I decided to wait.

Then, in April, a friend of mine sent me a link to an article showing that my patience had paid off - such a battery had been invented and would soon be offered as a pilot program by Green Mountain Power.

Although bigger than a car battery, this battery would easily fit in any space where a generator could. It could go in a basement or on the outside wall of a home.

I barely dared to hope. It sounded so good I thought it had to be a scam. For only $15 a month for 10 years (or a lump-sum payment of $1,500) you could have this battery installed at your own home. It gave a number to call to sign up.

Even though I had visualized it in the first place, still I was skeptical. I did a search on Snopes but the site didn't mention it as either a hoax or a scam.

So I put in my order. I gave my name and address and phone number. I even nervously gave my email and felt reassured when nobody asked for my Social Security number.

Time went by, and as I went about my life, the battery slipped into memory. Then, in September, I got an email from Tesla, the inventor and manufacturer of the battery: the Tesla Powerwall. They were ready for me - was I ready for them?

I was!

My excitement surged forward into the here and now.

* * *

Tesla wanted pictures of my basement and of my fuse box and circuit panel. The company wanted to know if I had solar panels, which would be an added benefit but not necessary. They emailed me an e-contract which I could e-sign and e-mail back to them. After months of waiting, now it would be only days!

The contract told me that I should make sure that my homeowners insurance would cover the device if anything happened to it - otherwise, I would be responsible for its $7,000 value.

This would be a lease of a Powerwall owned by Green Mountain Power. The lease would last for 10 years and then I could keep it for four years beyond that at no charge. And GMP would take care of all the maintenance.

How could I lose? I tried to think of ways, skeptic that I am, but couldn't come up with any.

So I e-signed and there I was, committed.

* * *

They said they'd be there on Thursday if I could be home that day. It would take about six hours to install and I'd be without power for at least two. Of course I could be home - I'd been waiting for this for years, maybe even longer than the folks at Tesla themselves had been waiting.

The installers arrived in three separate vans - two from Springfield, Mass. and one from GMP. The guys from Massachusetts were teaching the guys from GMP how to do the installation - mine would be the first in Vermont!

I tried to stay out of their way. I already knew from watching former boyfriends work on cars how dull it can be with only an occasional “hand me the wrench” to break up the time. So I sat on the porch and watched them carrying things into the basement.

I raked some leaves trying not to interrupt with my curiosity, but every once in a while I had to ask a question.

“Is that it? Is that the Powerwall?” I asked as they lugged a big box across my yard. The box was about the size of a picture window, and yes, inside was the Powerwall. It weighed about 300 pounds.

“How long will it maintain my power?” That would depend on how much power was stored in it at the time of the outage, but if the sun is shining, my solar panels will refresh it with additional power. Three days, at least, they guessed.

“How much would it cost if I'd bought it myself?” They weren't sure on this one, but guessed about $7,000. [Editor's note: According to tesla.com, the cost is $6,200 for the Powerwall and “supporting hardware.” Installation cost ranges from $800 to $2,000, not including a host of costs listed on the site.]

And people were buying them. At that point, 1,000 had been installed worldwide. Tesla had sent several to Puerto Rico after the hurricane. They'd installed a lot of them in Massachusetts, where people had to buy them outright, even though the power companies there discouraged their use.

“GMP is really impressive with their support of alternative, renewable energy,” one of them told me. “They gave those big discounts a few years ago to people installing solar panels, and now they're subsidizing these Powerwalls.”

“It's actually to their advantage in the long run - people with these in their homes become part of the entire GMP power grid, storing power during lull times and drawing it down during peak usage,” he continued.

“And if they drain anything you've produced from your solar panels, they pay you for it. You can't lose and neither can they.”

* * *

I couldn't lose, that's for sure. I couldn't wait for the next power outage, although they said the switchover would be so instantaneous I wouldn't even notice.

I called my friend and neighbor, Linda, and asked her to let me know when the power went out - when she had to start her generator.

And then it happened! We did lose power. I woke up one morning to find my clock was blinking.

I called Linda right away to ask her and she said yes, power had been out for a couple of hours around midnight.

What a disappointment! My first time to use my Powerwall - and I'd slept through it.

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