For Utilities, Small is Beautiful…Again

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Thanks to Ed Scerbo’s great post on microgrids on Transition Southeast and Deep South, I have my topic for today (although ‘micro,’ as I’m learning, it isn’t.) Relatively cheap electricity makes our society go, so it’s not possible to think about it without considering a number of related factors:  how we use, and abuse, it in our daily lives;  how we respond when power is interrupted — homes, offices, hospitals, schools, etc.– (quite well in the short-term, as stories from famous blackouts show);  and what the future may hold as conventional power sources shrink and renewables keep running into resistance from the, well, powerful. My iPhone 5 now tells me it is not compatible with the solar charger I wrote about so enthusiastically here a couple of weeks ago.  What’s up with that?

In case you need, as did I, a good definition of the microgrid and why we need to pay more attention to this technology, start here ( — very useful to decode technical terms of all kinds):

“Any small-scale localized station with its own power resources, generation and loads and definable boundaries qualifies as a microgrid. Microgrids can be intended as back-up power or to bolster the main power grid during periods of heavy demand. Often, microgrids involve multiple energy sources as a way of incorporating renewable power. Other purposes include reducing costs and enhancing reliability…The modular nature of microgrids could make the main grid less susceptible to localized disaster.” (Emphasis mine.)

Localizing is the whole raison d’etre of the Transition movement so it isn’t surprising local power generation is getting a lot of attention in Transition Towns in the U.K.  See this Rough Guide to Community Energy and start your own exploration. The U.S. Military is driving development of microgrids – some 40 bases have their own. In fact, as more municipalities, cities and regions realize the value of decentralized power, the global annual market for microgrid power generation is expected to reach $40B, with North America taking the lead. Last week, the Department of Energy (as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan) launched a competition to award $100,000 to six operational microgrids.  When you consider what is being spent to suppress solar, this doesn’t seem nearly enough money.

As it turns out, Florida is home to a number of utilities that qualify as microgrids, and the trend is surfacing all over the Northeast in the wake of Sandy, including in New York, Connecticut and Maryland (but not so far in my former home state of New Jersey, boo Chris Christie!)   There is a microgrid  in my county of Palm Beach: Lake Worth Utilities.  The rest of the county’s population, some 41 towns and incorporated villages, must rely on Florida Power and Light. We do, however, as I’ve written here before, have some choice or where to source our power while remaining on the FPL grid. Despite some issues with utility rates, local power generation is but one of the eco-assets of Lake Worth that makes it potentially more resilient than many of its neighbors, my town of Palm Beach Gardens included.  I’d love to hear how LWU is working out for you, so Lake Worth residents, weigh in.

One of the best examples of community power generation in Florida is Gainesville Regional Utilities, serving 93,000 customers in Gainesville and environs. Not only does GRU stand out for its emphasis on renewable energy including biomass, solar – the first in the state to offer solar feed-in-tariff program — and landfill gas (that’s methane derived from decomposing organic matter), it does a great job of communicating with its customers on benefits and underlying values. By the end of 2013, Gainesville Regional Utilities drew 21% of its power from renewable sources. Pear Energy, which powers our home and EV, buys energy from GRU. Check out this remarkable company here.

I could go on, and may dig in more deeply in future posts.  In the meantime, let this small sample of an exciting emerging field encourage you to explore it further and give it your support wherever you live.  As we all know, how we make and use energy directly impacts the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (hovering at 400 ppm currently).  Distributed power provides a measure of security as the climate becomes more unstable.  But the microgrid, especially when tapping solar and other renewable resources, is smart energy for the future.  Global warming is a wicked problem.  To quote a buddy of mine: “We need to throw everything we’ve got at it.”

More reading:

Federal Incentives for Renewable Energy (expire December 31, 2016)

Renewable Energy World (much to absorb)

Kill-a-Watt EZ Meters For you DIYers

How Stuff Works – delightful article on microgrids

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