Solar energy is the future and, like the future, most of us don’t know a lick about it, but Greg Smith does. He spent more than 13 years working for solar and storage companies and has trained thousands of people in the industry, including homeowners.
His new book, The Battery-Powered Home: Foolproof Grid-Tied Lithium Storage, aims to correct misinformation in the industry, especially when it leads to ill-informed and therefore unhappy customers.
On Author Hour today, he discusses the difference between solar and storage, shares common misconceptions and myths surrounding the products and how they work, and argues that ROI, return on investment isn’t as important as you think.
Jane Stodgill: Hi Author Hour listeners, I’m here today with Greg Smith, author of The Battery-Powered Home: Foolproof Grid-Tied Lithium Storage. Greg, thank you so much for being with us today.
Greg Smith: Absolutely, I’ve been looking forward to this.
Jane Stodgill: This is a really specific book full of lots of interesting stuff I did not know before. First of all, let’s give a little context to our listeners. How did this book come to be?
Greg Smith: Wow, that’s an awesome question. I’m very active on LinkedIn, I’ve been in the solar industry for 13 years now, and I do a lot of posts on LinkedIn. That’s my major forum for articles on how to and things like that, it’s not manufacturer specific. But a buddy of mine said, “Dude, you got so much stuff in your head, why don’t you write this down for real?”
I said, “Yes, you know what, that’s a great idea.” That was right when COVID hit and everybody was staying home, and I decided to use my time to write a book.
Jane Stodgill: Okay, why this specific book? Tell us who is this book for?
Greg Smith: As the title implies, it’s specifically for grid-tied applications, right? I wanted to make a separation between the off-grid installations and really focus on grid-tied, because off-grid is such an interesting and detailed animal to have to work with. It gets really detailed and you can get in the weeds really quickly for off-grid, and maybe I’ll save that for a different book, but I wanted to focus on the growing trend of lithium-ion storage used in residential grid-tied applications.
Solar and Storage–Two Different Things
Jane Stodgill: Okay, we’re talking about people who want some solar power but still want to be connected to the grid, if the storage isn’t big enough to completely cover their needs or for safety purposes, is that right?
Greg Smith: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of people that either have solar or don’t have solar and they end up adding on a storage system to be able to help them get through a power outage. I’m outside Sacramento, so in northern California, and the last couple of years, the wildfires have been really bad.
The utility companies will just shut the power down for two, three, four, 15 days and so people are really sensitive to this, and really, the only way that they can make it through without having to go spend time in a hotel is to get storage with their solar or get both at the same time.
Jane Stodgill: Okay, this was something that was new to me that there is a difference. Tell our listeners, what’s the difference between when you say solar and when you say storage, and why are we now seeing them together?
Greg Smith: Yeah, solar has been around for a long time. It hit the mainstream in the late 70s, but it was very expensive, and people were installing it out of love, and helping the environment. There’s a specific timeframe in the early 2000s when it really took off, and a lot of banks and financing places made it affordable to get solar, and you could actually pay off your system in five to seven years, that’s the target.
Well, as the utilities caught on to this and as more things started happening with outages and things like that, people realized that adding a storage system would really maximize their solar investment. You’re right, it’s two separate systems, but they work together.
The solar will work, of course, when the sun is up, it will power all the things in your house that it can during the daytime. But at night, you’re relying on the grid to power your home. What I always promoted was, “Well, if you have solar, you can get storage where you basically store the sun during the day and then use the sun at night to power your home.”
Jane Stodgill: This is a relatively new development? The packaging of these two for consumers?
Greg Smith: Yeah, storage has been around almost as long as solar, but it was very expensive–the lead-acid batteries. A rough example would be the battery in your car. That’s kind of what these batteries looked like, and they take a lot of maintenance. They have to be babysat and there’s a lot of planning involved, they take up a lot of space and, that really drove people away. They didn’t want all this junky-looking stuff in their garage, but the off-grid guys did that because that was their sole power supply, since there was no grid.
When lithium started coming around, right around the mid-2010s, it was very expensive back then, but as we see with electric vehicles, the price of those cars has come down, and that’s mainly because the technology in these lithium-ion batteries has gotten better, it’s gotten cheaper, there’s an economy of scale. So, as the batteries got cheaper, so did these battery systems or energy storage systems.
Now, a lot of solar companies will prepackage these systems along with their solar.
Jane Stodgill: Do you have any projection about how widespread these systems are going to be for Americans?
Greg Smith: That’s kind of a geographic kind of uptick. In places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico or other places where there are very expensive utility rates or where people are on this type of use, or rate structure where later in the afternoon, you’re going to be paying more for your energy than you would in the morning.
Those places will see a huge uptick in storage, mainly because you can save a lot of money on your utility bill. You take that aspect of it but then you have people in Florida and along the eastern seaboard and northern California–we got a huge uptick in storage in Texas after last winter, and so you have these areas that get hit with environmental disasters or storms, and people get really interested in storage because they find out the hard way that solar doesn’t work when the grid is down, and you have to have a battery system.
Jane Stodgill: Solar doesn’t work when the grid is down?
Greg Smith: That is correct, there’s a good reason for it. There’s a lot of technology in there, I’m not going to get into it but basically, every solar inverter in North America cannot make power when the grid is down. They are connected to your breaker box, the thing that has all the breakers in it–it will trip if you have something on in your homes. Those are circuit breakers that protect your home.
Well, the solar inverter is connected to the same kind of circuit breaker in your breaker box. It detects the grid and if it detects it, says, “Yeah, okay, there’s a good grid here, I’m going to start making power for this house,” but if the grid is down–
Jane Stodgill: Just to be clear, sorry to interrupt, we’re talking about grid-tied solar specifically, right?
Greg Smith: Correct, correct. Every grid-tied inverter has to stop making power if it does not detect the grid and this is a safety feature. Think about it when the grid is down and all those line workers, all the utility workers come and they’re working on those high voltage lines that they think are dead.
Well, if you have a solar inverter or an entire neighborhood of solar inverters that were still operating when the grid went down, and one of those line workers went to touch a line that he or she thought was dead, well, they would get a shock from all that solar that was in the grid.
There’s a lot of technology that make these things safe, but it just breaks my heart when I get a call from a homeowner and they would say, “Hey Greg, my solar didn’t work and we had a power outage, and I had no power for 10 hours.”
Jane Stodgill: Because they didn’t understand what they had purchased?
Greg Smith: Yeah, exactly.
Jane Stodgill: The book is targeted toward industry professionals, correct? People who are selling these systems, because the homeowners aren’t understanding. There is a kink in the stream of information somewhere and that’s what you’re trying to correct, is that accurate?
Greg Smith: Yes, yes. There’s a lot of misinformation in this industry, there’s a lot of bad information, and then there’s a lot of good information that just doesn’t make it out. The book is written for solar professionals and I pitched it that way because you know, I thought, if I made it for homeowners and professionals then the professionals wouldn’t want to read it because they would think it would be too watered down, but that’s not the case. It would really benefit a homeowner to read this book because the more education you get, the better off you’re going to be.
I have an entire section in this book just on managing customer expectations, and as I said, I’ve been doing this for 13 years, I’ve been on the service lines, I’ve taken the calls, I’ve been on the roof, I’ve installed these things, and I know the pain points. I thought it was time to write this stuff down so that everybody could have it available, and we could all be on the same page, and just stop all the nonsense. Then all these service calls could have been prevented in the beginning during the pre-sale, while the sales guy’s talking to the homeowners at the kitchen table about their setup, and that’s when this stuff should be brought up.
Jane Stodgill: First of all, I totally agree that this book is appropriate for anyone interested in purchasing and having installed solar and storage systems. As someone who is interested in that myself, I was shocked by how little I knew about the industry and the technology. I have been so interested to read this book, and I also want to tell listeners it’s hilarious. You have inserted a lot of funny jokes and scenarios in here that make it fun. But my question is why has managing expectations been such a problem? Why is there this kink in the information stream between people selling and buying systems?
Greg Smith: I noticed the same lack of flow of information when storage started becoming popular back in 2007-2008 when solar really started to take off. We call it the beginning of the solar coaster, and there’s a lot of similarities between the beginning of solar and how storage is taking off now, and there is a lot of information out there. There’s a lot of different manufacturers, and they’re all good, but they all have different products, so it is hard to compare products.
Sometimes, not to pick on the salespeople but I love picking on them, they do not do their due diligence to actually learn about the products, and this is what drove me crazy. They call it a sales sheet, and they have three or four manufacturers, and they have a graph, and they say, “Okay, let’s pick these ten specifications and I am going to put green checkmarks in all the ones that make my product look the best,” and so what ends up happening is they get comfortable with one product.
They don’t want to sell another one unless they absolutely have to, and they don’t really become as knowledgeable as they can be on these products, which means they don’t know how to talk to the customers about all of these things that can come up later on. So, as I said, it drives me crazy, but I thought this would be a great time to just put pen to paper in one fell swoop to take care of all of that. But I do want to tell the listeners this book is not about installing solar in storage. That’s not what this book is about.
Jane Stodgill: It seems like it’s just an issue of specialization in the industry. Salespeople aren’t electric engineers and electric engineers aren’t selling the product.
Greg Smith: Exactly, yeah, and really it’s tough because you know engineers know the product. Not to bag on them, but you know, most engineers are not people persons, right? You have a salesperson that knows how to talk to people, but they don’t or they may not understand the technology, and then you have an engineer who understands the technology very well but he can’t talk to regular people like us and translate all of that gobble they talk into something meaningful.
Jane Stodgill: Yep, okay, and in addition to explaining and helping potential buyers manage their expectations, there’s also a lot of science in here. I really enjoyed learning about how solar electricity works and how lithium batteries work–maybe I’m a nerd. What are the most common myths and misconceptions about solar power and storage and how they work that you’re hoping to correct?
Greg Smith: Well, we talked about one–the fact that solar doesn’t work when the grid is down, so the only way that that solar will continue to make power in your home is if you have a storage system. That’s the first myth that is a very common one that we see, although the good news is that one is getting more infrequent in a lot of service calls.
Jane Stodgill: I feel like most people have heard of a Tesla roof. Does a Tesla roof have storage with it?
Greg Smith: No, it doesn’t have, they make solar and storage. Tesla makes what they call the Tesla roof, which is basically the specialized solar modules that act as shingles, and then they also have the power wall product that works with that solar. But you don’t have to use the Tesla solar with the power wall. There’s a lot of different solar inverter manufacturers, there are a lot of different storage system manufacturers out there, and most of them can work together but they need to have a few that encompass everything.
Tesla does the solar and storage, you’ve got Solar Edge that also makes their own solar inverter with their own storage system, but then you would have to buy the solar modules that go up on the roof. That’s another thing that really trips people up is there’s a lot of piecemealing going on. There are very few systems that give you this all-in-one encompassing storage system. It is usually a bunch of stuff hanging on the wall, but the good news is it’s really looking a lot different than that off-grid lead acid cousin.
The lithium battery systems are pretty sexy–they look good, but you have all of these other conduits and disconnect switches and all of these other things that kind of mess up the look but they’re getting better. The installers are getting pretty savvy at hiding all of that.
Jane Stodgill: Okay. All right, thank you for traveling with me into the cul-de-sac. Back to the myths and misconceptions.
Greg Smith: Yeah, so the biggest myth out there, the one that drives me nuts that I’ve been fighting since 2008-2009 is what has been dubbed the Christmas Tree effect. The basis of this myth was developed by companies that sell a specific product that goes underneath the module. A lot of people call the things up on the roof, the glass, they call them panels, but they’re really modules. I know this is a losing battle because people call them panels but there is a distinction.
A panel is what is used in a solar thermal install and that heats water, a module creates electricity. The premise of this myth is that if you shade just one module then the entire string of modules, in other words, all the modules that are connected together to increase the power, if you shade one of those modules then your power is going to just tank for the whole array and that is simply not true.
There’s a lot of things out there and you’ll see them, if you google this, you’ll see some dude with the module and you’ll have a voltmeter hooked up to it and he’ll shade part of it, and yeah, it will go down, but that’s not how the array behaves when it’s connected to an inverter. It just doesn’t work that way. I go through in painstaking detail to show you how it’s not true. It is not really even part of the main section of the book. I called it an extended rant because it is just something I wanted to get off of my chest.
Jane Stodgill: Okay. Any other myths you want to share?
Greg Smith: Yeah, just one more. One more and it’s about batteries and it’s kind of a twofer. People think, “Well, batteries are too expensive,” and they’re not anymore. They’ve come down a lot and another pushback I get to storage is, “Well, you know there’s no ROI. There’s no return on investment and it’s just not worth it right now.” I don’t know and that’s a very specific thing for people to come to grips with.
If you ask anybody in Northern California that had a solar and storage system that suffered a two-week outage because of a fire, if they give a rats behind about ROI, they’re going to tell you no. You can install these things in places like Arizona, where you’re being charged a much higher rate between the hours of like five to 9 PM than you are the rest of the day, then those things actually do have an ROI. You’re getting these systems to pay for themselves in under 10 years, which is ridiculous.
That would never have happened 10 years ago, but the technology has gotten better, the prices have come down and the ROI argument never made sense to me, right? Because human beings buy things without a second thought about ROI–like your car, right? Nobody thinks, “You know, is this car going to appreciate?” I mean sure, you’ve got the collectors and all of that, but if you go out and buy a Honda Civic, return on investment is probably not the main thing on your mind.
Somebody that spends $5,000 on an audiovisual system for their home is probably not thinking about a return on investment. $200 jeans, and on and on, so there is a difference between ROI and value and you just have to make that distinction. In the book, I walk you through how to make the distinction between ROI and value.
Jane Stodgill: Okay and presumably, these systems are only going to become more affordable, and perhaps soon there will be an ROI for the average consumer.
Greg Smith: Absolutely.
Jane Stodgill: Greg, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Congrats on the book. Again, listeners, the book is The Battery-Powered Home: Foolproof Grid-Tied Lithium Storage, and it is basically everything you didn’t even know you needed to know. Greg, in addition to reading the book, where can people go to learn more about you and your work?
Greg Smith: Another great question Jane. I started a website for this book and its kind of morphed into a lot of other things but snarkysolarguy.com. On the landing page, you can sign-up at the bottom to get an advanced eBook copy and find out what’s going on as the book progresses through the last stages. I figured a website all about solar and storage would get kind of dull, so I got really good at barbecue in 2020 since I didn’t have to travel anymore, I was able to spend all day babysitting a 12-pound brisket, so I sprinkle a little barbecue, some tips, and tricks as well.
Jane Stodgill: Great, thanks so much, Greg.
Greg Smith: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Jane, this has been a blast.