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Microgrids: An Immediate Climate Solution

Nov. 9, 2021
Written for US policymakers and regulators, this paper offers a vision of the vital role microgrids can play in solving pressing climate challenges.

The number and severity of weather-related power outages continues to go up with each passing decade. In fact, the US experienced 70% more power outages from 2010-2019 than in the preceding decade. The effects of climate change are already upon us and are expected to accelerate. Meanwhile, our society’s dependence on electricity grows.

The urgency of the situation demands a new approach—one where policymakers focus not only on reducing emissions but also on preparing for climate disaster.

Make no mistake, it is not the failure of either renewables or large power plants that cause the overwhelming majority of power outages. It is the failure of the wires-based system that delivers the vast majority of the electricity consumed in the US today. In fact, most power outages are caused by failures of the distribution system.

We know there is a solution to this readily foreseeable risk. Microgrids have proven themselves in disaster after disaster, storm after storm. And yet the technology faces a list of headwinds most centered around outdated regulations—that hinder its wider use. It is time to chart a new course, one that allows our communities to prepare for the climate challenges ahead.

For our leaders, climate change presents three distinct and urgent challenges as they rebuild the nation’s energy infrastructure.  Leaders are being called upon to:

  • Protect citizens and the economy from energy disruptions already upon us because of climate disasters.
  • Redesign the electrical system with the future in mind, introducing cleaner energy technologies to counter even greater weather extremes in the decades to come.
  • Make these changes in an equitable fashion, providing distributed clean energy—and the economic prosperity it can bring—to all communities.

Among emerging clean energy technologies, microgrids are unique in their ability to meet these challenges. Along with climate resilience, microgrids also offer additional benefits, including local control of energy, cost management and energy efficiency. This is why a growing number of communities, businesses, institutions, government agencies, utilities and military installations across the United States are building microgrids. Unfortunately, too often, they are installed after disastrous power outages. Had they been built beforehand, hardship could have been avoided.

So what can be done to speed the development of microgrids? And what is causing the delay?

We are witnessing a classic example of technology outpacing policy. Too often those seeking to install microgrids face delays and extra costs because of rules and regulations designed for an electric grid of the last century. These outdated rules make it difficult, and at times impossible, to fully capture the opportunities offered by software-based energy systems such as microgrids.

Microgrids require a different sort of policy support than solar, wind and other forms of climate-friendly energy generation. While there are good examples of incremental actions in some states, it is clear that regulators and policymakers have not yet seized the opportunity to put forward the kind of innovative policy mechanisms that can foster microgrids. Microgrids do not benefit from the same kind of policy attention and innovation enjoyed by solar, wind and other forms of climatefriendly energy. This is largely a problem of familiarity; while simple microgrids have been around since the days of Thomas Edison, today’s advanced microgrids—fast, intelligent and clean—are newer to the scene than solar and wind energy. Yet, these microgrids dramatically extend the benefits of renewable energy, adding resilience and energy reliability.

Greater education about microgrids is clearly needed. In polls taken in 2020 and again in 2021, the Civil Society Institute found voters lacked knowledge about microgrids. Once the concept was explained, both Democrats and Republicans expressed strong support for the technology.