While we continue to innovate in the clean energy sector, the distribution of that energy is stuck in the twentieth century, dependent on outdated, failing infrastructure and large, entrenched companies. 

The 330 million residents of the United States are largely dependent on the nation’s electrical grid, a collection of 10,000 large scale energy production plants, 55,000 substations, and 120,000 miles of transmission lines criss-crossing the country. Utility scale power plants are massive, with dangerous working conditions and horrible environmental impacts of emissions and pollutants. These plants are disproportionately located in disadvantaged communities where they injure the most vulnerable citizens. When one substation goes down, tens of thousands of people can be left without power.  For instance, the 2013 North American Storm Complex saw 600,000 homes and businesses go dark. We’ve seen these large scale systems fail as recently as last year when a state-wide freeze shut down power to the state of Texas. Up to 700 people died, primarily in Black and Brown communities. California, largely dependent on three energy utilities, has also faced preventative mass energy shutdowns due to heat waves and wildfire prevention in high wind conditions.

As technology has advanced, so has our ability to distribute energy safely and equitably.  Microgrids are local renewable energy power plants for single buildings or campuses and communities. They are straightforward to install, simple to maintain and best of all, significantly cheaper than energy traditional sources. Whether these distributed power grids are based on solar, battery storage, or new hydrogen fuel cells, microgrids produce power on-site and recapture energy distribution and costs away from monster corporations and instead create value for the community, or building owner.
 
And no, there’s no catch – just a paradigm shift. There is, however, a misconception and it’s that microgrids are somehow costly for developers, property owners, or communities. While the cost of traditional energy has sky-rocketed, now at its highest point since 2009, the cost of solar technology has dropped by 82% over the last decade, making the cost of installing a microgrid small with the enormous upside of long term price stability and even revenue generation. In addition to saving money on their own energy bills, property owners can also sell cheaper, more reliable energy to their tenants. In my experience, that additional income can represent 10 - 30% of the net operating income (NOI) of a fully leased property. There’s also a marked increase in asset value, with case studies showing that property owners can boost asset value by up to 5X the cost of a microgrid.  This proves that on-site power plants are not just the terrain of shiny new construction but can be attached at any point over a building’s life span. Sustainable and less energy-intensive buildings are now worth more than their traditional counterparts in the market.  

Beyond the obvious financial benefits of microgrids, they also have no fuel emissions of any kind and require very little construction outside of the property.  They don’t require new power plants, or large and expensive infrastructure projects, don’t scar the landscape and avoid fuel importation protests of the kind Maine has experienced since deciding to build a $1 billion project to bring power from Canada across 53 miles of undeveloped forest. Maybe most importantly, they create access to energy. That type of access creates new, meaningful opportunities for improved social equality across all communities. Energy costs place an outsized burden on low-income households and economically disadvantaged communities. In other cases they can keep regional medical care online during a grid failure.  Plentiful energy emerging from a small, low-cost community microgrid, known as a networked grid, keeps money in that community and removes the potential for sudden and hard to bear fluctuations in the market. Geographically isolated communities meanwhile are no longer dependent on an immense and exposed power line system, where a single breach equals another blackout. For good measure, they’re also immeasurably less vulnerable to earthquake, fire, land owner disputes, even terrorism.

Ultimately, our best bet in fighting climate change lies in using and promoting technology that’s better for the planet. By not struggling against the profit incentive, but instead designing them to generate profits for owners and residents,  more people can be attracted to the use of renewable sources, whilst simultaneously avoiding the prohibitive costs now associated with traditional energy.  In the middle of a growing global energy crisis, putting energy self-sufficiency into the fabric of our cities at a community or even a building level helps both the planet and the bank balance, and uncouples us from an increasingly fragile global supply. That’s why it’s an idea whose time has finally come.