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…

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FAQ for ARLnow commenters

There is one constituency in Arlington whose support is absolutely required if you want to affect political change: the ARLnow commenter. Drawing on vast expertise gained by reading the headlines of up to 2 articles per day, ARLnow commenters are Arlington’s cognoscenti in politics, civic planning, transportation, and most importantly for us: energy policy.

Recently our campaign was mentioned in passing by ARLnow, who linked to a short article on insidenova.com. But it did not escape the sharp eyes of the commenters, who contributed many informed and nuanced opinions about our proposal. Recognizing the enormous sway ARLnow commenters hold over the conventional wisdom in Arlington, we feel we must address some of these comments.


Here we see a common problem that befalls many of our esteemed ARLnow commenters: they simply do not have the time to read anything more than a headline. HerezAThought will be relieved to know that we are not proposing building utility-grade generation facilities (we want to maximize home solar, however!). To address their other concerns:

  1. We also wouldn’t want to build “a few natural gas turbines” because natural gas is a fossil fuel that is nearly as bad as coal.
  2. Green energy prices are not necessarily higher than fossil fuels – and if fossil fuels were priced in a way to take into account their climate impact, they would be completely unfeasible.
  3. There will also be no “added cost of transmission” because power will still come across the same dominion-owned transmission lines.
  4. A “diseconomy of scale” is when per-unit costs increase as an organization grows, which doesn’t make sense in this context. What HerezAThought is probably trying to say is “we will lose economies of scale”. The truth is we will lose some efficiencies and gain others, but if we look at other municipal utilities, it should come out more efficient.
  5. While it would be good to wean VA off coal, this is not an either/or decision, we can do both. Dominion is closing coal plants, but it is replacing them with natural gas plants, which are almost as bad.
  6. If it takes us 20 years to transition off coal, we are almost certainly doomed to climate catastrophe.

Here we have another profound and exemplary piece of ARLnow commentary from Arlington Robin. Let us admire the chutzpah to assert that government has no business producing power when 1. many large cities, including Los Angeles, generate power and operate publicly owned utilities just fine and 2. we aren’t suggesting Arlington county actually generate its own power. Let us also admire the capitalization of “Governmental” – what could this mean? Very avant-garde! Lastly, let us admire the third person sign-off.


Here, Arlington Robin has come around to the idea that governments can’t go out of business, because they are not businesses. This is the kind of rapid learning required if you want to keep up with the ARLnow commenter crowd. If only they could find somewhere that explains the upsides of municipalization. And Arlington Robin, you may be able to think of dozens of downsides, but we can think of hundreds of upsides, so by the rules of ARLnow commentary, we win.


Angry_Johnny76, this is not part of our proposal but we might look into it in the future


Jim B, my man, please join us


Maxsimon is really inflating the cost of the infamous bust stop, which is actually less than one million and is rather misunderstood. Also, we do not want to build power plants.

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Dan’s statement to the Arlington County Board

On behalf of Our Revolution Arlington, I want to wholeheartedly support the adoption of the updated Community Energy Plan and its improved renewable energy goals. Setting goals is a good first step. However, anyone that has made a new years resolution knows that setting goals is the easy part. The hard part is in the doing. You have to look no further than the Paris Agreement, where signatories set very modest goals and not a single industrialized country is meeting them.

And even setting goals can be a tricky business. The IPCC Special Report has become something of a gold standard for goal setting, but it is indeed, like I have heard some of you remark, a political goal. The report is a political document, shaped not just on science, but political and industry pressure. The IPCC has a history of underestimating climate change and it is almost certain the latest report is another underestimation. Just this week, the BBC published an article where Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the UK government stated he is “deeply scared” about the loss of land and sea ice, and believes the goal of carbon neutrality should be moved up ten years to 2040. So I implore the members of this board to educate themselves on this issue and prepare to move to even more aggressive goals in the near future.

We all know there is a massive obstacle in the way to meeting our energy goals: Dominion Energy. Let’s be frank: the executives at Dominion Energy have made it abundantly clear that they are climate change deniers. They continue to build new, carbon emitting, natural gas burning generation plants that they openly plan on using well past 2050. They are also attempting to build a huge natural gas pipeline that would more than double the amount of carbon they would emit. Dominion even lobbies against energy efficiency standards because less energy usage by consumers means less profit for them.

It is true that Dominion is regulated by the state government and it is true, that in theory, if the right people were elected, Dominion could be forced to decarbonize. But I think everyone in this room recognizes that Dominion mostly regulates itself, and the trend has been towards less regulation, not more. This theory also ignores the political reality: this is a bipartisan problem. Even if Democrats take the state house and senate, their margins will be small, and there are more than enough Dominion friendly democrats to prevent any real progress. We also have, in Ralph Northam, a governor who also supports the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and therefore cannot be trusted with climate related matters.

There is a quote from one of the authors of last year’s IPCC report that has stuck in my head. Myles Allen of Oxford said we need to “turn the world economy on a dime“. He did not just mean switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He meant we need to move from an economic system that prioritizes profit for shareholders to one that prioritizes the common good. The good news is that we already know how to do that. This, right here, is such a system. You here on the county board certainly did not run for office in pursuit of riches. You did it because you wanted to make Arlington County a better place. We desperately need to put democracy in charge of our energy decisions.

There is an option that would allow us to both solve the Dominion Energy problem, and make the change in economic systems described by Mr. Allen. We could bring our electrical utility under local, municipal control. It would allow us to have an electrical utility that is committed to decarbonizing in an equitable way, and would open the door to all kinds of innovative approaches such as microgrids and on-bill financing. Additionally, the press coverage would keep climate change in the minds of the public, and Dominions ability to lobby would be weakened by the loss of revenue from Arlington. It will be a challenging fight that will require political bravery, and yes, money – to win. But now is the time for radical measures, and it is a fight worth having. It is simply too late, and the stakes too high, to sit and cross our fingers and hope for solutions from a market controlled by fossil fuel interests to make the necessary changes.

Arlington County is one of the wealthiest and most privileged places on the planet. We are the sixth wealthiest county in the country and the most educated. If we are serious about equity, If we are serious about saving ourselves from the worst consequences of climate change, we cannot set a goal and dust off our hands and hope others make the changes for us. We must show leadership and throw ourselves into making the radical changes that climate scientists are begging us to make.

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We Can’t Count On Virginia’s State Government To Force Dominion To Decarbonize

An objection that is sometimes raised to municipalization: Why do we need to go through all this effort? Isn’t this a problem for the state legislature? Shouldn’t we just focus on electing the right people to the state legislature and governorship, and let them pass laws forcing Dominion to clean up their act?

Republicans have controlled the state legislature for the last 4 years and have passed no climate change legislation. So assuming Democrats take both the state house and senate in 2019, let’s look at who will be in charge.

Governor Ralph Northam: Northam takes in a huge amount of money from Dominion. Northam has also incorrectly maintained that the state does not have the power to oppose the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – a de facto approval of the pipelines construction. Northam went and replaced two members of the State Air Pollution Control Board who expressed misgivings about approving the construction of a compressor station for the pipeline. He even wrote a baffling opinion piece where he mentioned the IPCC 1.5c report, and then bragged that Virginia had set a goal of a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030, which is far short of the 45% the IPCC report mandates. Last spring he failed to veto a budget provision that blocked funding for carbon-cutting regulations.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (probable Senate Majority Leader): Saslaw is widely known as being a reliable Dominion booster. He is the top recipient of Dominion money in the state senate. He has consistently voted for less oversight over Dominion and against energy efficiency standards. Saslaw received a D on the Sierra Club’s climate and energy report card in 2018, lower than some Republicans.

House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn (Probable House Speaker): Continues to take money from Dominion. Voted in favor of SB966, which reduced the state’s ability to regulate Dominion and was opposed by progressives. That bill is partly responsible for Dominion’s excessive profit-taking. (To be fair, Filler-Corn is not alone here, most house Dems voted for SB966)

Unfortunately, this is bipartisan problem. Regardless of what party controls the state legislature in 2020, Dominion’s influence will remain strong and it is incredibly unlikely we will see meaningful movement towards aggressive decarbonization. It is conceivable that some day, the public opinion on climate change will move so much that real action will happen at the state level. We simply don’t have the time for that. We have to push!

Municipalizing would free us from Dominion and its political influence. Arlingtonians, not the Virginia State Legislature, would control the priorities and policies of its electric utility and could make sure they align with our values. Additionally, it would reduce the power of Dominion at the state level. Less customers means less money to spend on lobbying. And if other localities were to take Arlington’s lead, its influence could be reduced even further!

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Arlington Elected Officials Mostly Refuse To Take Dominion Energy’s Money

Dominion Energy’s incredible political influence in Virginia politics has become a serious political issue in recent years. Voters and elected officials alike have come to realize the negative effect Dominion’s lobbying has on Arlington. The result is that, as of 2019, only 1 out of the 12 state and local legislators elected by Arlington continue to take money from Dominion Energy.

House of Delegates:

State Senate:

County Board:

*Confirmed by email

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Dominion made $277 million in excess profit and there is nothing we can do about it

Dominion Energy made $277 million dollars more in profit than considered “appropriate” by regulators – and due laws recently passed, Dominion will be able to keep this money. This is money that could be used to lower customer’s energy costs or be used to fund the aggressive shift away from fossil fuels needed to forestall the climate emergency. Instead, the climate-change deniers at Dominion Energy will be able to use the money as they see fit.

This all could change, though. If Arlington municipalized its electrical utility, voters would have control over what was done with the money. We could use it to make our electricity grid more resilient, subsidize rooftop solar and home efficiency improvements, or build our own solar or wind farms.

Read more:

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Dominion Energy Has No Intention of Meeting IPCC goals

The IPCC report from October 2018 laid out aggressive new goals that the world must meet to prevent the worst consequences of climate change

  • A 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (as compared to 2010 levels)
  • Net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

Dominion Energy has made it clear they have no intention on meeting that goal. Dominion continues to build new fossil fuel infrastructure. This is incompatible with meeting IPCC goals.

  1. Dominion is the lead stakeholder in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is a 600 mile long natural gas pipeline. It would double Virginia’s carbon emissions.
  2. Dominion recently spent 1.3 Billion dollars to build a new natural gas power station. They claim natural gas is “clean-burning” – it is not. They intend to use the station for 36 years, well past the deadline for zero emissions.
  3. Dominion has told its investors that it intends to reduce its carbon output by only 55% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

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Natural Gas: A Dead End

Natural gas is often held up as an example of a “clean” fossil fuel that can serve as a “bridge fuel” to help smooth the transition to carbon-free power sources like solar and wind. This is a false and dangerous claim. There are two big problems with natural gas:

  1. While it is cleaner than coal or oil, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide while burned. Natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide that coal does. Unfortunately, we simply do not have room in our planetary carbon budget. We must transition directly to non-carbon emitting power sources like solar and wind.
  2. Natural gas is a mixture of many different gasses, but it is mostly methane. Methane is an extremely destructive greenhouse gas. As natural gas is extracted and transported through pipelines, methane can leak out into the atmosphere. Because methane is such a destructive greenhouse gas, it does not take much leakage to make natural gas just as bad as coal.

Building new natural gas wells, pipeline infrastructure, or power plants is simply incompatible with meeting CO2 reduction goals.

Further reading:

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