Independently Owned Microgrids are Critical in the Era of Climate Change Posted on Apr 28, 2023
Biden’s climate agenda cannot be met unless policy approaches to energy supplies start dramatically supporting independently owned clean energy supplies. Our country is built around outdated methods of energy supplies dependent upon over 160,000 miles of transmission electric lines and 5.5 million miles of distribution electric lines. Collectively, these transmission and distribution electric lines along with the network of power stations and electrical substations that connection them is known as the “electrical grid” or simply the “grid.”
Electrification of our country is underway, but no credible plan exists to meet the coming electricity demands. This is a problem because the future electricity needs of the U.S. from electrifying our machines will be enormous.
In the United States, about 39% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and about 30% come from the furnaces, hot water heaters, stoves, ovens, lighting and clothes dryers at residential and commercial properties. The replacement of these fossil fuel burning machines with electric versions will reduce overall energy use because their electric versions are more energy efficient. For example, electric cars use about 80% of their energy to move versus gas powered cars that use about 30% of their energy to move with the rest turned into heat. Even though overall energy use is reduced with electric alternatives, they increase overall electricity needs and the grid is not ready to handle their collective energy demand.
Adding utility supplied clean energy delivered through the grid requires an enormous amount of time and money to build difficult transmission projects, to upgrade substations and electric lines, to navigate long permitting delays, to respond to community opposition and lawsuits, and to overcome significant grid connection challenges. Building millions of individually owned clean energy supplies with onsite energy storage not dependent upon the grid solves these problems. Why then, is this approach not favored and promoted over utility focused approaches to address our nation’s climate agenda?
Policies that Promote Utility Owned Clean Energy Supplies Prevail due to Job Loss Factors, Lack of Local Modeling Tools, Complex Energy Misinformation Campaigns, and Unavailability of Small-Scale Microgrid Assistance Nation-Wide
A significant number of jobs would be lost by a dramatic energy market transformation.
A dramatic national and local policy shift in the U.S. that encouraged millions of individually owned clean energy supplies would mean less energy purchased from utilities, and thus, put many utilities simply in the “poles and wires” business. This would have large impact on good-paying utility jobs.
Data on local impacts crucial for the development of local energy policies is lacking.
Modeling tools used to understand global climate systems are most accurate over large spatial scales and long-time frames. More tools are needed to map climate resilience, adaptation and intrinsic needs on local levels.
Misinformation campaigns plague energy politics.
The complicated field of energy easily lends itself to re-framed versions of energy issues that fail to include all of the pertinent facts. Even long-time energy professionals must constantly educate themselves on existing and emerging issues in the energy sector.
California energy dynamics offers insight into this quandary. Recently, a utility led lobby campaign convinced the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to increase rates for solar customers by arguing that low-income non-solar customers have subsidized wealthy solar customers through paying higher electric rates. As a result, last month the CPUC increased rates for customers who want to buy their own solar by 75% to 80%. The result is predicted to dramatically decrease the financial incentives, and thus adoption rate, of people who want to build their own solar supplies dependent on the grid.
Another re-framed energy issue beginning to emerge is a story that individually owned energy storage technologies are not ready to be deployed in a manner that enables anything more than just powering a few devices for a couple of hours. Although most agree that it is true advances in onsite energy storage technologies are needed, the simplicity of this position misses the solution that energy storage provides to enable individually owned solar that is not dependent upon the grid.
The ability to deliver a packaged solution that includes individually owned clean energy and 100% electrification (called “microgrids”) requires a complex, diverse and difficult to find skill set.
Currently, most companies work in siloed specialties consisting of one or two services, such as solar, energy storage, HVAC, plumbing, EV, finance, tax, energy efficiency, or energy assessment. As a result, an individual homeowner or small business who wants to determine how to purchase and finance their own “microgrid” must have sufficient time and financial resources to either hire a project manager who coordinates numerous companies, or manage all services and companies themselves. Unfortunately, companies who provide smaller-sized microgrid assistance are difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Right now, national and local policy solutions are favored towards the corporations who are winning the energy race because of the largest profit margins and a penchant for problem solving. The speed of building out independently owned microgrids could be dramatically increased through policies that honor their critical role in solving the problems caused by climate change. However, climate problems are more than just energy problems – they are societal problems requiring leadership with courage and a moral compass.
(1) See https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=27152 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_power_transmission_grid#:~:text=The%20two%20major%20and%20three,lines%20operated%20by%20500%20companies; https://www.nae.edu/183133/The-US-Electric-Power-System-Infrastructure-and-Its-Vulnerabilities#:~:text=Traditionally%2C%20the%20DS%20is%20located,poles%20(%2DWarwick%20et%20al.
(2) New York Times “How electrification became a major tool for fighting climate change” April 14, 2023 available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/04/14/climate/electric-car-heater-everything.html
(3) New York Times “How electrification became a major tool for fighting climate change” April 14, 2023 available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/04/14/climate/electric-car-heater-everything.html
(4) See e.g., https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2023/04/staggering-us-on-cusp-of-600-gw-clean-energy-boom/
(5) “The Economic Report of the President” at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/ERP-2023.pdf
(6) This an approximate of the amount that incentives will decrease which is the generally agreed percentage decrease according to most solar professionals. For e.g. see “Frequently asked questions about changes to California’s rooftop solar rules (aka “NEM3”)” at https://solarrights.org/faqnem3/
(7) See, e.g., groups like Courage California @ https://couragecalifornia.org/