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…


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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