Remember the Green Tea coalition in Georgia and Florida where progressives and right-wingers fought against power utilities to allow rooftop solar? Now a similar coalition is shaping up after Clean Energy Action’s Leslie Glustrom convened a conference together with Amy Cooke, CEO of the Denver based Independence Institute. On many if not most issues these two will find themselves on opposite sides but microgrids have features that appeal to both.
Microgrids are essentially ‘islands’ where energy is produced (and stored) from one or more sources to match their local demand. In fact most actual islands are served by a microgrid because they can’t be economically connected to the mainland’s utility grid. With the ever-increasing threat of power outages and solar’s massive price drop many individuals, companies, institutions and municipalities are now interested in shielding themselves from expensive trouble by making their own power. Clean energy advocates like it because microgrids typically have minimal carbon impact, and Libertarians gain independence from a monopoly utility.
The conference brought a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of microgrids. Steve Drouilhet, founder of Boulder-based Sustainable Power Systems, quipped “When you’ve seen one microgrid – you’ve seen one microgrid.” Each microgrid must to be carefully tailored to the location, its diverse power sources, and the local demand. The engineering accounts for half of the cost which means that an existing grid connection is usually less expensive. Former NREL researcher Peter Lilienthal’s industry-leading company, Homer Energy, along with legions of competitors, reported there is progress on standardizing designs to lower costs.
But more important than price, a microgrid can deliver better reliability and resilience than a vulnerable grid. Where a grid connection exists, microgrids can drastically reduce exorbitant peak “demand charges” by utilities.
Provided we elect a more rational US government which pushes for climate action, emissions reduction may actually become the strongest driver for establishing microgrids: once fossil fuel production is forced to pay for its pollution in the form of a carbon tax while also losing current subsidies, clean energy solutions like microgrids will quickly become the cheaper option.
The summit also featured State Representative Edie Hooton (D) of Boulder’s House District 10 and State Senator John Cooke, State District 13. The two discussed their discontent with Xcel Energy’s massive lobbying, noting that Investor Owned Utilities appear to serve their shareholders first and their consumers second, and are poised to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure that is likely to become stranded assets and a burden on ratepayers.
Rep. Hooton is currently working on a study bill that explores options for more energy freedom by allowing for Community Choice Energy (see: https://youtu.be/BjKam5prF-s) and microgrids. The goal here is to find out whether it might see bipartisan support. The gathering at the Independence Institute certainly shows that shared interests exist that would otherwise be obscured by political blinders.
By Martin Voelker, former 350Colorado board members, chair of the Jeffco chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society