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A Smart “Microgrid” for Our Energy Future

The future of renewable energy in this country could be found in your own backyard. Or maybe on your roof.

Rather than investing billions in the utilities companies, which seem content to push renewables to the backburner for the indefinite future—and which are slow, cumbersome, expensive, and prone to massive failures—the money could be distributed to individuals creating a small, smart, “microgrid,” if you will. Instead of one centrally located powerplant, the microgrid would rely on solar arrays and wind turbines on every house (or every third house, perhaps) feeding electricity back into the grid. It could be done quickly, at a lower cost, and have the advantage of massive redundancy built right into the system.

From Fast Company:

Green Path North is pretty typical of the renewables push in the United States: big, expensive, slow, and spectacularly uncertain. Twenty-eight states have pledged to shift their energy mix to at least 10% renewables, and at press time, Congress was considering a national target of 15% by 2020. But if many of us see this moment as a defining one, a key opportunity to reassess how we create and use energy across the country, the federal government seems content to leave the owners of the old energy world in charge of designing the new one. Big utilities are pushing hard to do what they do best — getting the government to subsidize construction of multi-billion-dollar, far-flung, supersize solar and wind farms covering millions of acres, all connected via outsize transmission lines. Nevada senator Harry Reid has introduced legislation to speed the way for a national “electric superhighway.” (Former Vice President Al Gore is another champion.) “We need to have an efficient way to take energy created in often remote areas and move it to where it is needed,” Reid said this spring on the Senate floor. “A cleaner, greener national transmission system — an electric superhighway — must be a top national priority.”

But the men appear to be victims of a bad metaphor. There’s nothing especially efficient or high tech about heavy-duty aluminum-steel cables; “line loss” — the power lost during transmission — runs as high as 10% on our overloaded grid. The power lines take years to propose, approve, and complete; Green Path North alone has gone through seven potential routes since 2006. And the LADWP is taking a flyer that the remote, large geothermal and solar power plants it’s supposed to connect with will even be built. In all, the federal Bureau of Land Management has to date received almost 400 applications for large solar and wind plants covering 2.3 million rural acres. Only a few of those have undergone environmental assessments — and that’s only the first step in a multiyear planning, permitting, and building process. Meanwhile, utilities are making plenty of money off their existing investments in fossil-fuel power. It often seems that according to utilities, renewables are the power resource of the next decade, and always will be.

Harvey says he has a better idea. The founder of the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, he’s no NIMBY complainer. “We’re just the opposite; we want it in our backyard,” he says. “We want to put solar panels on our roofs and our neighbors’ roofs.” The nearby city of Palm Desert rolled out a program last August funding fixed-rate loans to private homeowners for rooftop solar, and within weeks, the money had been spent and panels were up on roofs. “The choice is clear,” says Harvey. “If you want renewables, you want ’em clean and you want ’em fast, and the best way to do that is [rooftops]. But the utilities have been so adamant about thwarting these programs. They are the ones that are standing in our way.”

The evidence is growing that privately owned, consumer-driven, small-scale, geographically distributed renewables could deliver a 100% green-energy future faster and cheaper than big power projects alone. Companies like GE and IBM are talking in terms of up to half of American homes generating their own electricity, renewably, within a decade. But distributed power — call it the “microgrid” — poses an existential threat to the business model the utilities have happily depended on for more than a century. No wonder so many of them are fighting the microgrid every step of the way.

Read the whole article here.

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