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Micro Grids Could Have Macro Impact

By James Cortada

Tiny electrical grids supplying electricity are being set up by homeowners, businesses, and communities all over the world. In California, homeowners are installing solar energy panels to reduce or eliminate their dependence on traditional electrical providers. In the Congo, companies are selling batteries using solar energy to provide supplies to homes. Tesla and Ford are touting their automotive batteries as backup sources of electricity.

The UN’s Climate Champions designated “energy” as today’s theme in conjunction with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Hopefully, microgrids will play a significant role in helping the world to become carbon neutral by 2050—or earlier. Microgrids are miniature systems for providing electricity, such as solar panels on the roof of a house or a business that creates electricity used by the building, even shared with neighbors. Often these produce more electricity than needed, say by a house, which can be sold to a local utility company. These grids rely on green technologies, so do not pollute, can reduce the cost of electricity to zero and even generate income to a home owner, for example.

Pivot Projects is presenting an event in Glasgow during COP26, It's Time to Pivot, an element of the Malin Group's Spotlight series. It will take place in person and online starting at 1:45 pm UK Time on Nov. 6. The event is a conversation and a call to action to individuals and groups who want to pivot to a more sustainable future. Please join us!

Here's a blog post about Pivot Projects and the event, with a link to registration.

Here's the registration page.

Energy is a complex story, though, so microgrids and other solutions to the carbon problem won’t scale up to have high impacts without a lot of earnest hard work by individuals, companies, and government regulators.

There are ugly truths at work:

· Demand for electricity is rising all over the world and traditional utility providers are facing enormous problems in meeting it.

· Aging infrastructures are not weathering climate change. In Texas, in February people died during a cold snap when the entire grid collapsed. In California, aging grids caused massive forest fires.

· Traditional utilities are raising the price for their product just as impoverished communities are struggling to grow economically or to battle Covid-19.

The conversation about microgrids is changing. Before, it was about state-funded experiments, rich people putting panels on top of their homes, or Tesla car owners using their automotive batteries to supply them and neighbors with electricity.

But now we need microgrids for other reasons. Worldwide, the reliability of traditional grids has been declining along with the public’s confidence in these. Brownouts are less acceptable today than, say, 75 years ago when we had fewer appliances dependent on electricity and when most of the world’s regional grids were being built. Since then these have not expanded sufficiently or weatherized. People need microgrids to augment their supply of electricity faster than can be provided by traditional utilities. You see this when the day’s temperature rises so high that utilities urge people not to use their air conditioners or simply cut off supplies. That is not a sustainable strategy and causes deaths. Recall the French experience of 2003 when the lack of air conditioning resulted in the deaths of 15,000 people.

If these circumstances are obvious, why do the utilities not expand the resiliency of their networks and supply of electricity? Their biggest problem is an insufficient supply of capital with which to invest in infrastructures. They argue that regulators and legislatures are a problem too, but those objections are increasingly becoming irrelevant as entire societies commit to mitigating climate change problems. No, the dark truth is that there is resistance by utilities and legislatures.

For example in both Texas (famously resistant to climate change mitigation due to the political and economic power of the oil industry) and California (also famously reputed to want ecofriendly utilities) behind the scenes new more reliable more ecofriendly grids are not being supported. In both, utility industry labor unions are resisting change for fear of losing jobs. Unions and utilities are pressing state legislatures not to reform traditional grids, leveraging lobbying and the power of so many union workers voting.

The public is becoming more aware of these backroom machinations and is taking actions on their own. How:

· Individually if they can afford it, they are building their own grids. The alternatives are becoming economically competitive with traditional suppliers.

· Neighborhoods, even entire communities, are establishing electrical cooperatives that can compete with the major utilities. California has 23 regional ones acquiring electricity wholesale or with locally built generators relying on more state-of-the-art technologies than traditional utilities.

· Start-up providers relying on currently available ecofriendly supplies are starting to appear, competing against the traditionals, although fighting regulators and legislators aligned with unions and utilities.

There will be more such actions. The public needs to be aware of them and increase use of their political muscles to tip electrical production into more ecofriendly forms. It will happen because we need increasingly reliable greater supplies of energy. The time to do so is ripe and now!

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