Community Microgrids: Building Sustainability and Resilience

When discussing sustainability and clean energy, the topic of microgrids is sure to come up. But what exactly is a microgrid? On the evening of May 10, 2018, at the Movement Strategy Center in Oakland, Local Clean Energy Alliance hosted Rosana Francescato and Matt Renner from the Clean Coalition and Marna Schwartz from Berkeley’s BEAT Microgrid project to answer that question.

After a brief introduction by Local Clean Energy Alliance Organizer, Jessica Tovar, Rosana Francescato began by delivering a basic introduction to microgrids to the attentive listeners packed into the room. She highlighted the contrast between the current centralized energy system and a decentralized or localized system. The current centralized energy system relies on large, remote power sources and expensive, long distance transmission lines, while a localized system, such as a self-sufficient microgrid, can be made possible by local clean energy resources and boasts an ability to balance power generation and need without long-distance transmission.
She described that a basic microgrid simply consists of (a) a renewable method of power generation, such as solar PV cells; (b) power storage, which enables the balancing of available power with the need; and (c) a control system to manage the flow of energy within the microgrid. 
Community Microgrids, based on the highly successful German model, are large, interconnected energy and storage projects that include solar installations on large commercial rooftops and/or parking lots, critical municipal facilities, and residential rooftops. Rosana explained that, unlike smaller, isolated microgrids, a Community Microgrid is reproducible and scalable. Community Microgrids supply four main benefits to communities: 
  • economic benefits, due to the financial investment in construction and avoided costs of electrical outages,
  • better overall performance of grid,
  • increased resilience, and
  • better energy security.
To reduce costs, Community Microgrids are sited where there are large sites or buildings with lots of solar potential and close to distribution substations where long distance transmission lines end and local lines deliver power to customers. Community Microgrids need to be sited close to those distribution substations, both so that they maintain a connection to the larger grid, and so that they can be disconnected from that grid and continue functioning when catastrophe strikes. In this manner, Community Microgrids allow users to benefit from the larger grid system, while maintaining localized control.
After the various benefits of Community Microgrids had been detailed, Matt Renner described how to actually implement a Community Microgrid, including several examples that the Clean Coalition is currently working on. He explained that creating a Community Microgrid begins with a clear vision of what the project will hopefully become, followed by thorough planning, which includes staging a location and working out design details. Next you have to prepare to deploy, which involves raising money for the project, issuing RFPs, getting permits and finalizing designs. Deployment includes securing contracts and financing, and constructing the microgrid. The final step consists of preparing for the operation and maintenance of the microgrid.
Matt also pointed out that, according to a 2017 study, renewable generation is cheaper than the cost of constructing a new gas-fired power plant. Naturally, this became a huge turning point for California in recognizing the feasibility of renewable generation and microgrids and is an exciting development for the future of local, clean energy.
The Clean Coalition is involved in many different Community Microgrid projects in various stages of production. Matt first described the North Bay Community Resilience Initiative, which is taking place throughout Sonoma and Napa Counties, in areas destroyed by fires this past year. Communities forced to rebuild have shown great motivation to rebuild in smarter, more sustainable and less expensive ways, which include microgrids. There are many partners working on these projects, including PG&E and municipal authorities and residents. 
The Peninsula Advanced Energy Community in East Palo Alto and Redwood City is a Community Microgrid geared toward development in a disadvantaged community, specifically to address historical pollution and increase resilience in a community that is particularly at-risk of disasters. 
Similarly, another project is taking shape in Montecito, the small community south of Santa Barbara. The unincorporated community was somewhat of an electrical island already, with only one line supplying power to the community, when it was hit with destructive mudslides following the Thomas fire. Natural disasters associated with climate change are expected to increase in severity as the planet continues to warm, and they have sparked an interest in resilience and innovation in vulnerable communities.
The evening concluded with an update on Berkeley’s BEAT microgrid project by Marna Schwartz from Berkeley’s office of Energy and Sustainability Development. The BEAT project was designed to create a microgrid, utilizing a sizeable amount of solar installed on the Center Street garage connected to Berkeley’s Public Safety Building and Civic Center Buildings. They secured a grant from the California Energy Commission to complete phase one of the project, which mostly allowed completion of a feasibility study. 
The feasibility study uncovered a number of challenges to building urban microgrids, including the fact that existing distribution lines are not suitable for microgrids because they serve so many customers, and building new distribution lines is very expensive. One reason for the high costs of new lines is that  PG&E charges sizable maintenance fees for the lines. As a result, Berkeley has revamped the project to be islanded solar plus storage, meaning it is not connected to the existing grid owned by PG&E.
Throughout the evening the audience  contributed several good questions, including the current status of battery storage technology and the possibility of using electric vehicles as batteries for the grid. 
One of the most significant questions was about who controls a microgrid. Matt Renner acknowledged that that question is at the heart of the future of energy. Microgrids offer the potential to put community in control of their energy and shift the economic balance to keep wealth generated by the community, in the community and not in the pockets of large corporations. This question is fundamental to Energy Democracy and is at the heart of the work of Local Clean Energy Alliance.
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