March 2021Policy

Democracy and Microgrids

Understanding renewable technology will arm progressives with a vision to find more collective strategies to meet all citizens' needs. There is a tension between utilities making a buck using renewables, and equality in meeting all Americans' needs. We need to know the market, technology and political terrain to change our society, infrastructure and laws required for a democratic and sustainable future.

In the age of fossil fuels, utilities transport energy to broad consumption areas using trucks, pipelines, trains and ships. The power is burned, transformed into electricity and shared by wire. Energy created through renewable energy systems are widely spread and can be coordinated and managed locally. For-profit utilities have been the norm for regional energy distribution and use, but locally managed systems can help us get away from that model. The provincial or municipal government's more intimate link to citizens may employ distributed energy solutions democratically.

A microgrid is a computer-coordinated localized distribution system to transmit power and store electricity for potentially multiple users. During a utility breakdown, local microgrids disconnect and function autonomously. Microgrids are critical when 100% reliable power is a necessity, such as with hospitals. Microgrids allow us to mimic nature by creating thousands of ecological niches of energy production and storage, and many storage options are available which can balance the energy produced by photovoltaic panels, windmills, or other forms of renewable energy.

Renewable microgrids survive disasters more easily than grids using fossil fuels, thus increasing reliability. Caribbean nations are moving to renewables as hurricanes grow in strength and interrupt fossil fuel delivery. California will be using microgrids in remote towns as the chance of sparks from power lines threatens to create forest fires.

Microgrids can decrease energy costs by supplying saved energy back to the primary grid at peak mid-day hours when electricity is most expensive. When you have energy storage, you have the potential to buy power when it is cheap.

Organizations such as universities, corporations, or condominium developments can each have their own microgrids and be self-managed and mutually supportive. This enables a potential for communities to form around microgrid management. Local solutions allow citizen input and the buildup of local education and energy infrastructure. An educated public will lead to local climate and energy decisions while profit-driven utilities focus on regional distribution.

Toward Energy Democracy

Renewable use must be maximized in order to limit the fallout from climate change. Cities need to construct more schools and buildings which utilize solar panels. States need to see that rural and poor areas are provided increased funding for renewables, as local taxes are not enough. Previously, homes have gone renewable when affluent families could afford them, but this level of us is not enough to meet the need to reverse climate change. Progressives and politicians need to be imaginative. Some solar companies install renewables at no cost and receive their payment monthly instead of through utility costs. Local governments need to aid the spread of renewables by designing legislation that allows cooperation among citizens and organizations, including requiring buildings to optimize solar energy absorption and provide support to the less affluent.

The deployment of batteries in electric vehicles will be a significant trend over the next few decades. This mode of energy storage resource is an opportunity to balance the daily electricity load, and it will lead to the public owning a significant part of the energy infrastructure. Utilities want to internalize private electric storage within their system. However, if the utility is a private and public system, why would there not be a citizen and a government member on the corporate board? The distrust of utilities would lessen with joint planning. The reality that we need renewables everywhere, and public ownership is becoming a part of the system, plus climate change is global, begs us to realize that we need cooperation and planning on many levels representing us.

Governments on the state and local level can ensure that all citizens are able to transition to renewable energy use. Community microgrids will have some storage, but when electric cars become widespread their batteries will help with that. This level of cooperation will minimize costs for both citizens and governments by avoiding higher peak prices from utilities. Local politicians will need to respond with regulations balancing choice, reliability and full coverage of citizens. States with in-depth knowledge of energy use will not guess utility costs.

Profit-driven utilities focus on regional distribution and maximizing their own profits. Although utility companies could lead the transition to renewables through coalitions that promote education on renewables, microgrids and their use, this will always conflict with utility companies' perspective of seeing microgrids as a profit point and as a way to sell equipment and service. That profit motive may not incentivize utilities to find solutions for all citizens.

Private utilities also have incentives to create state laws allowing them to become the state's energy department. Getting the most out of renewables require progressively led local governments to create a path to enable social energy solutions. Most states provide utilities with aspects of monopoly power. Those laws will require changing if we are to attract the full benefits of renewables.

Politicians and citizens need scientific and technical knowledge to understand our changing world and citizens' needs. We need to encourage students to seek jobs inventing a renewable future with justice. Students from disadvantaged areas may have the most motivation to create solutions covering everybody. Still, the younger generations are motivated to create an equitable, just and functional world.

The impending threat of climate change suggests that humanity needs long-term planning and a balance of several renewable energy types like solar, wind and geothermal energy. Even after we have stabilized our climate, volcanic eruptions, solar flares and nuclear war could disrupt the climate and our future electrical-based society. Human survival increases with national self-reliance, international cooperation and planned cooperation at all levels and over the centuries.

You can find more information about microgrids at the following resources:

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