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A Microgrid Grows in Brooklyn

| Written by Nick Stumo-Langer | No Comments | Updated on Apr 22, 2016 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/a-microgrid-grows-in-brooklyn/
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Scientific American – April 22, 2016

by Morgen E. Peck

Martha Cameron has gone to great lengths to make her home self-sufficient. The 40-year resident of Brooklyn’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood installed 18 photovoltaic panels on the roof of her three-story brownstone in 2010, and during the warmer months it generates enough electricity to run the first two floors of the building. Cameron does not have batteries to store the energy, so she relies on the power company to absorb electricity from her solar panels and feed it back to her through the existing grid. In essence she is an energy producer for New York City’s utility company, Consolidated Edison, which buys electricity from her at wholesale rates and deducts the payment from her monthly power bill.

Under this arrangement, Cameron can never profit from her contributions. Nor can she manage her own power supply. And when the neighborhood’s electricity goes out, the utility company turns off her power, too, lest the energy she generates migrates through the lines and injures the people working on them. If the grid were to fail for a prolonged period, as it did during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the first priority would be to restore power to hospitals, shelters and community centers. Until that happens the sun could be high in the sky, yet no electrons would flow from Cameron’s roof.

But that could soon change. Cameron and many of her neighbors have signed onto a project called Brooklyn Microgrid, which is installing infrastructure to enable a small network of Park Slope buildings—and another cluster in neighboring Gowanus—to sever themselves from the larger grid. The microgrid would independently distribute locally sourced electricity without mediation from the utility.

CHANNELING EDISON

In the short term Brooklyn Microgrid will operate as a backup option during storms, cyber attacks and other catastrophic disruptions. “The main driver for the project is resiliency in the face of grid events,” saysLawrence Orsini, the founder of LO3 Energy, a company that was started in 2012 and now funds the Brooklyn Microgrid project. “Keeping facilities that are critical for the health and well-being of the community up and running will be the focus at any stage of the development.” But in the long term the infrastructure that LO3 installs—and the corporate entities that it plans on establishing—could set participants on a path to fully owning the electricity their community generates, giving them a say in how to distribute it and possibly encouraging further investment in renewable energy sources.

Microgrids are hardly a new idea. When Thomas Edison first set the country on a course to light every house with tungsten filaments, he conceptualized a patchwork of small, independent utility providerstapping generation sources close to home. When alternating current won out as the standard in electrical power transmission, however, it immediately became feasible to transport it over long distances. And so began the centralization of U.S. electricity distribution.

More than a century later a series of environmental, technological and economic pressures are finally nudging us toward decentralized distribution. The price of renewables has dropped dramatically, meaning that it makes economic sense for someone like Cameron to install a photovoltaic array on her roof. In 2015 solar developers added some 7.3 gigawatts of generating capacity to the U.S.—up from less than a single gigawatt in 2010—with about a quarter now coming from rooftop installations, according to Greentech Media Research, a Boston-based renewable energy research firm. Meanwhile the nation’s utility grid continues to age and expose its vulnerabilities, compelling some states to give communities with high rates of locally generated electricity more control over its distribution.

California was one of the early states to push for microgrid adoption, and this year it became the first to require utilities to share distribution-planning resources with groups that could use the information to set up microgrids. California is also among a handful of states to adopt Community Choice Aggregation, a legal option that lets local governments buy electricity generated in the community and sell it back to residents in direct competition with their investor-owned utility company.

Today, microgrids provide only 0.1 percent of all the electricity generation capacity in the U.S., according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a nonprofit organization that advocates for communities on environmental issues. And nearly all of them have been built in only seven states, all of which have passed legislation encouraging the adoption of microgrid technology. The ILSR forecasts a doubling or tripling in the number of microgrids over the next five to 10 years, however.

Read the full story here.