Community Microgrids for Disaster Resilience: A follow-up to “True Grid”

By Kristy Jansen

California is suffering through a brutal fire season, Europe has faced a nasty heatwave all summer, and Japan recently experienced its worst typhoon in 25 years. 2017 was the costliest year for natural disasters in U.S. history with losses exceeding $1 billion, at a total estimated cost of $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). One cannot connect a specific event with climate change, but these events are certainly more likely in a warming world.

From fires to hurricanes to landslides, the nation’s electrical grid took a major hit in several places prompting a serious reconsideration of how best to provide reliable power when faced with an increasingly unstable climate. The answer? Community Microgrids. A microgrid is a small-scale electricity system with clearly defined geographic boundaries that includes power production and power use. Many experts agree that the energy system of the future should consist of interconnected microgrids.

Around the world, microgrids are catching on as the most sustainable method for making communities more resilient in the face of these events, providing indefinite renewables-driven backup power to critical facilities such as fire and police stations, hospitals, water pumps (critical for firefighting and disaster recovery), and emergency shelters.

Following a series of local natural disasters, the Optimist Daily’s publishing partner, the World Business Academy, sponsored an event in its hometown of Santa Barbara to discuss resiliency and rebuilding in the aftermath of the disastrous Thomas fires and landslides. One of the featured speakers was Craig Lewis, executive director of Clean Coalition, a non-profit working to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and a modern grid through technical, policy, and project development expertise. Craig was also featured in a 2015 Optimist View article, True Grid that focused on community microgrids as a solution for a sustainable energy future.

It has been almost three years since True Grid was first published, and the article’s predictions were spot-on. Revisiting this piece is well worth your time, so we are re-running it in this week’s Optimist view. And, here’s an update on what’s happened with community microgrids, and some of the Clean Coalition’s work, since the article was originally published.

The Clean Coalition, in collaboration with electric utilities, municipal governments, and allied nonprofits such as the World Business Academy and others, is staging community microgrids for these hard-hit communities. In the case of the Thomas Fire, which started in Ventura County and became nearly unstoppable, a lawsuit alleges that a lack of resilient electricity infrastructure at the very beginning of the fire crippled initial efforts to extinguish the blaze because critical water pumps were inoperable, limiting firefighters’ ability to respond.

“For some inexplicable reason the City of Ventura failed to have on hand properly working backup generators, which prevented desperately needed water pressure to be supplied to the fire hydrants located in the hillside neighborhoods and canyons of Ventura,” the lawsuit alleges, according to ABC News.

This emergency energy resilience crisis is exactly the situation community microgrids are designed to address — by creating local energy generation and resilience to keep the lights on and the water flowing in the first minutes of a disaster. In the days and weeks after a major disaster and power outage, a microgrid can isolate itself from the grid to provide indefinite renewables-driven backup power to critical facilities and emergency shelters.

As we experience losses related to climate change, it is vital that we rebuild in a manner that makes our communities more resilient and energy-efficient, as well as lowering their overall environmental impact. This scalable and replicable approach can save money, provide local economic stimulation, and provide secure and stable clean local energy, even during disasters. Microgrids deliver a trifecta of economic, environmental, and resilience benefits across broad communities.

The True Grid article also discusses a vital step in the transition to clean local energy: analyzing the existing grid to understand the opportunities for siting solar panels, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Rapidly dropping costs and technological advancements have made these distributed energy resources (DER) increasingly cost-effective solutions to meet electric system needs. Yet, few states are actively planning their distribution grids to capitalize on the growing value DER provides. The Distribution Resources Planning (DRP) process establishes a comprehensive and transparent framework designed to improve distribution system planning, operations, and investment. It seeks to optimize the use of existing electricity grid assets and new DER resources to modernize the grid while minimizing costs for ratepayers.

Scaling clean local energy is a mission anyone can join. Bring these ideas to your municipal and state governments. Join the movement and make your voice heard. Thank you to all who are seeking solutions and who spread optimism — there is no more important work in this truly epic historic moment.

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