It is not yet known whether trees blown into electric power lines by ferocious winds helped cause the catastrophic fires in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. But electric lines are notoriously vulnerable to a variety of hazards, and vulnerabilities to the electric generation and transmission system are well known. It’s time to think about replacing some of our centralized electrical system with decentralized “microgrids,” which generate power locally and renewably — and without utility poles.
Ironically, it is the tragic leveling of entire communities in the Wine Country that might make building microgrids more cost-effective than rebuilding conventional infrastructure in the short run. And in the long run, benefits of microgrids would grow.
Decentralized, or distributed power, can be everything from rooftop solar panels to an array of solar, wind or geothermal power grouped to serve blocks or neighborhoods.
In 2015, the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts reported that “A century-old centralized system is yielding to advanced, distributed energy generation capabilities — in which power is produced at or near the place where it is consumed.” Foremost among these will be microgrids (energy generation and transmission for a specific customer base), with energy generated by renewable energy sources including solar, wind and geothermal, which will serve both regional and neighborhood needs.
Energy microgrids are more resilient in the face of service interruptions caused by natural events, including devastating storms that have taken down utility infrastructure in this year’s hurricanes, wrote engineer Mahesh P. Bhave. He has said that hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico offers a perfect opportunity to replace the traditional electric grid with microgrids.
Conventional utility infrastructure is also susceptible to hacking. In 2014, CNN documented 79 attacks on the U.S. energy grid. Microgrids are not so susceptible.
Microgrids can provide reliable, continuous power, and enhance use of renewable energy sources. Much of the energy sent over long distances on the existing grid is lost in transmission. Electricity produced close to where it is used, building-by-building or microgrid-by-microgrid, will be more cost-effective and efficient. And, as it does not rely on enormous generating plants, locally produced energy can more easily be harvested from the wind and sun.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., solar energy produced on rooftops is bought and sold among neighbors, bypassing traditional utilities. Batteries to store solar power and feed it back at night are proliferating, and are rapidly coming down in cost. Rigorously tested, these batteries can supply a whole house with energy, and are made by well-known firms such as Tesla and Samsung, as well as a growing number of smaller companies.
We can also reduce our energy use, and save money as well. Passive solar homes have been gaining popularity for years. Zero-net-energy buildings, which maximize the effect of renewables and energy efficiency, will be required as standard construction in California by 2020. That could dramatically reduce the amount of energy new buildings in the Wine Country — or anywhere else — will need.
Post-Fire Rebuilding Offers a Chance for Microgrids, by Edward Church, The San Francisco Chronicle, October 30, 2017.