Wary of Power Outages, More Homeowners Pony Up For Generators, Solar Panels

In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri when people were without power for days, demand for generators and solar panels has soared.
In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri when people were without power for days, demand for generators and solar panels has soared. Photo by Schaefer Edwards

Mark Rowe was tired of living in the "stone age," always having to light candles and use flashlights every time a storm hit or rolling power outages occurred. After Hurricane Ike, he decided to contract Grasten Power Technologies to install a generator at his Montgomery home.

“It has gotten us through a lot of outages, especially during the freeze almost two years ago,” Rowe said. “That was a major outage, and I don’t know what we would’ve done without the generator.”

Winter Storm Uri plunged Texas into catastrophic cold weather conditions in February 2021. At least 210 deaths were recorded, as many people had no power to keep their houses warm and the state’s power grid couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Grasten is just one of the companies that is still backlogged from generator-installation requests that came after Uri. “We’re just now catching up, we were 2,500 projects behind, and we had a lead time of up to 50 weeks after the storm,” Joshua Keller, the president of Grasten, said.

With natural disasters like Uri and the inconsistencies of the grid, demands for generator and solar panel installations continue to grow as Houstonians are not only prioritizing their air-conditioning needs, but also focusing on preserving their heat sources and finding energy-producing alternatives to prepare for this winter season.

“We haven’t seen Houstonians taking major steps in protecting their heat sources until this year,” Shannon Fish, project manager of Generator Power Systems, said. “But we are now seeing heat become a priority as well.”

An uptick in interest in generator installations is usually seen by generator companies at the end of winter and beginning of spring, as people prepare for summer air-conditioning outages and hurricane season, said Fish. But with Uri, and concerns about how the grid will hold up, there is a growth in installations in the early months of winter this year.

Solar panel systems are also gaining traction as Houstonians face continued power issues from the grid.

Solar system companies are emerging into a new normal after dealing with supply chain issues at the height of the pandemic that made it harder to get and secure materials for projects. Though this issue has not completely resolved itself, the ability to acquire products is getting better, said Adam Miner, director of operations at Sunshine Renewable Energy Solutions.

In lieu of putting in a generator, the solar panel system can be used during the day, while the batteries are charging to be used later in the night. “Then if there is a big storm and the grid goes down, you’ve got solar and batteries, you’re protected and you are an island independent from the grid,” said Stewart Masterson of Texas Solar Outfitters.

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Two crew members of Texas Solar Outfitters installing solar panels at a Houston-area home.
Photo by Laura Masteron

Along with energy generation, the installation of solar panels has financial benefits. The value of a residence that has solar panels installed goes up by 5 percent, and homeowners get a tax credit of 30 percent of what the system cost, said Masterson.

Additionally, according to Masterson, the price of energy decreases for customers. Customers who buy power from an energy supplier are paying around 16 cents per kilowatt hour, and that rate continues to increase. When solar panels are installed the cost of energy decreases to five cents per kilowatt hour.

According to Miner, as the kilowatt hour pricing continues to fluctuate over time, changes bring down the projected payoff period for a solar panel system from an average of 12 to 13 years, to around 10.

“Usually, a residential system will pay itself off in the form of savings that would equal the cost of installation by about year 10 or 11,” Miner said.

Though these systems can provide benefits in the long term, the length in turnaround time leaves customers weighing whether they want to make that financial commitment.

Battery backups, which help solar panels continue to operate during a power outage, are the elements of the system that tack on the most expenses. “There is a really common misconception that by default people think that if they have panels on the roof, then when the grid goes down, there'll be that one house on the block who's got power,” Miner said. “That’s not how it works, you have to have a battery backup system or energy storage to keep your solar system producing.”

When City of West University residents Lyle and Alice Ross installed their solar panel system a little over two months ago, they decided to put in a power wall that would hold the battery backups of the system to ensure it would continue to operate.

“We put in a power wall so no matter what happens, we would have back up in case everything goes down,” Lyle Ross said.

The Rosses qualified for a solar panel co-op plan offered by the city of Houston, but the Rosses decided to go with a private installation company, Texas Solar Outfitters.

Before a residential installation can begin, solar panel systems and generators both have to go through an approval process.

One of the obstacles the Rosses faced during their system’s installation was the steepness of their roof. The company they were originally working with was from Arizona and was not certified to work on steep roofs, but Texas Solar Outfitters was certified and used to working on the kind of roofs in the area.

Their process from then on moved rather swiftly. “We were told that if you do this in the city of Houston, it would be much lengthier,” said Ross. “West University has very stringent rules and if you meet those rules, they will pass you through very quickly and that is exactly what happened.”

For generators, the actual equipment installation typically takes one day depending on the scope and complexity of the project, said Shannon Fish. However, in Houston, contractors must first obtain an electrical permit and plumbing permit before they are able to be given the generator permit.

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Generator Power Systems crew member wrapping up a generator installation at a residence.
Photo by Faith Bugenhagen

The permit allocation for generators, excluding commercial generators, is often done at a faster rate in Houston, than the permit process for solar panel systems, said Erin Jones, public information officer at Houston Public Works. This is because generators do not require plans in the city and the permits can often be bought on the same day, whereas solar projects require plans to be submitted with their requests.

Once the generator permit is provided to the contractor, they need to ensure that they follow the municipality code to abide by the rules and regulations of equipment placement. “We have to follow the code, the city of Houston has pretty basic guidelines, but if you went to a city like Piney Point, they are more specific,” Josh Keller said.

Generators that are in residential spaces are not directly connected to CenterPoint Energy’s services, though they still need to get approval from CenterPoint that they follow National Electrical Code and CenterPoint Energy service standards.

CenterPoint’s approval of solar panel permits often takes longer, as they are directly connected to CenterPoint Energy’s services. Ahead of installation, CenterPoint’s approval is needed as contractors must have access to the poles and wires regulated by the company.

When the Houston Press reached out to CenterPoint to discuss this approval process with an employee who handles that, a spokeswoman from CenterPoint said no one was available and instead provided this statement.

“CenterPoint Energy has developed a web-based portal where installers submit applications on behalf of the customer. This portal allows for the installers and CenterPoint Energy to have visibility into the overall processing of each application.”

“This process can add two or three months to a project,” Masteron said. “On a good project, you can get it done in three months and on a slow one, it might take six months to get through permitting with the city and permission to operate from CenterPoint.”

Nearly 13,000 solar panel systems and over 13,000 generators have been approved by CenterPoint in this calendar year. According to the CenterPoint spokeswoman, they continue to see more applications submitted each year for both solar systems and generators from energy consumers.

It has been 14 years since Rowe first installed his generator, and he continues to be happy with his decision. The initial process was easy for him and handled by Grasten’s team, only taking about two or three weeks to be completed.

Rowe is particularly grateful to have had his generator during Uri, as he saw neighbors lose their plumbing, have major water inundation issues after and struggle to find alternative options to try to combat the cold.

“We had rolling blackouts, so we'd lose power for maybe six hours and then we'd gain it for three or four, it would have been a hardship without the generator,” Rowe said.

In the past, Rowe’s house would even operate as a refuge for his extended family members. Whenever there was the possibility of inclement weather, his parents would come down to stay in his home to avoid being without power.

Rowe gets his generator inspected annually by Grasten’s crew to ensure that in the event of future storms, he will continue to be adequately prepared for the unexpected. “It’s just a weight lifted off my shoulders, I don’t have to worry about not having power anymore,” he said.

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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.