Microgrids Can Help Solve Macroproblems

As we move further and further into the era of climate chaos, it’s becoming ever clearer that local control over energy production and distribution will be key to keeping the lights on.

Exhibit A is this Native American community in Blue Lake, California, which, despite the mass blackouts that plagued the state during the climate-change-induced wildfires there, was able to keep power flowing to residents and businesses through a solar-powered microgrid. As the Washington Post reported:

The Blue Lake Rancheria tribe has constructed a microgrid on its 100-acre reservation, a complex of solar panels, storage batteries and distribution lines that operates as part of the broader utility network or completely independent of it. It is a state-of-the-art system — and an indicator of what might be in California’s future.

The Blue Lake Rancheria served more than 10,000 people during the day-long outage, by some estimates, roughly 8 percent of Humboldt’s population. And for a government that had largely ignored the tribe for more than a century, the tribe suddenly became a vital part of its emergency response.

The article mentions, of course, that these independent grids raise thorny questions for the large investor-owned utilities, whose profits and operating costs are threatened by the existence of these smaller independent producers. The simple answer seems to be to take investor-owned utilities out of the equation and replace them with publicly and/or cooperatively owned utilities that seek to integrate microgrids into the larger network – utilities that act more as conductors of the orchestra, rather than the players (producers). This is being proposed by mayors all over CA right now with respect to the bankrupt PG&E.  

If we took over the grid from Dominion here in Arlington through the municipalization process, we could incubate and incorporate an entire network of community microgrids – particularly through on-bill financing of solar panel and battery installation and by potentially facilitating the mass purchase of electric vehicles by buying the batteries and integrating their storage capacity into the overall network. A locally owned energy utility could also undertake the undergrounding of power lines so as to protect this part of the infrastructure from the increasingly chaotic weather that climate change promises us. Can you imagine the investor class that runs Dominion ever doing any of that? We can’t…