Generator or Battery in Washington in 2018?

by Anders Alexander

Generators have been the good old standby for backup power in my lifetime. I have a generator because it’s an easy and lower cost way to get power when the grid is down. Batteries are developing though and battery packs are now competing with small and medium sized generators. I also have solar so when the time is right for me I will add a battery system to it.

The strength of a generator setup is that its easy and affordable to get the parts installed, and you can always add more capacity by storing more fuel. A generator can also pump out a lot of power, a battery setup is often limited to 7kW draw capacity at most, whereas you can easily get a generator that produces 10kW of power or more. Generators are also loud, smelly, heavy, and based on a combustible fuel stored on-site, but most of those issues can be addressed with good planning.

In Washington we have dark winters, so if you have batteries with solar panels and the power goes out in the winter then the solar isn’t going to help much. The stored capacity in the batteries is what you will have during a winter outage and that is often enough for 1-2 days of using a small amount of electricity on a large battery system. 

Small battery packs, marketed for camping, are starting to be made with lithium which makes them a much more attractive product. Lithium is light, lasts a long time, and recharges well. From a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars portable battery packs can be found at many stores from Cabela’s to Costco. These small units will charge a phone, power a light, and maybe even keep a fridge going. But they do not have much stored capacity so you can power your fridge but maybe only for a few hours. 

Larger battery packs are built to be installed on your home, they can be integrated with solar, and they can also be integrated with a generator. These systems cost at least $5k for a smaller DIY install to above $20k for a larger system installed by a professional company. The Tesla PoweWall is the most well known brand name for home battery packs, but they are not yet available in Washington and there is a wait list. Companies like SMA, SolarEdge, Enphase and more are coming to market with home battery packs in 2018.

If affordable back up power is needed in 2018 a generator is probably the right choice. 2018 will be a development year for batteries in Washington, homeowners getting installed will be a part of the first batch of customers getting products that are launched in 2018. There are still older battery options available, but the growth of lithium batteries and what I call ‘single box technology’ is bringing the next stage in home batteries. On old systems there is a lot of knowledge and ability that customers need to operate their systems. Newer systems come covered in one big box with an easy to use interface so that the product can be easily used and managed by most any person. Cars, cell phones, computers; they are all really complicated but they come as a ‘single box technology’ so you can use the thing but not know what is inside.

Generators can recharge battery packs if the products are chosen correctly. Not all battery packs will come with this feature but some do. Generac even has a generator that only works in conjunction with a battery system. 

Even though there are only a few batteries options available in Washington in 2018 solar is ready for installation and local incentives are strong. It’s a good time to get solar, and then add batteries later. A generator can act as back-up power until the battery gets added, then when a long outage depletes the batteries you can recharge them with the generator and keep going. I would call this a more survivalist system as the grid is rarely out for longer than a day for most Washington homes. 

Every homeowner will warrant a different plan for back-up power in their home because context is the most important part of deciding on what technology to use.