Close to Home: Microgrids are a power system for the 21st century

A rapidly growing climate crisis demands that we all examine the way we live and work. Nowhere is that imperative more evident than in the recent wildfires that have ravaged huge swaths of California. The flames and PG&E's preemptive shutdowns highlight structural problems with our energy generation and distribution systems. Things have to change, and we have a solution.

The outages, while arguably reasonable, have placed a huge burden on households and businesses. More importantly, they have jeopardized lives and critical services. Generators powered by fossil fuels are an inefficient and terribly polluting solution to backup power, and they contribute to the underlying cause of these crises - greenhouse gas emissions.

Think about it. Our current electrical grid was developed in the early 20th century, long before we understood the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Its dependency on distant, large-scale generating facilities and long-distance high-voltage lines is now clearly inefficient, dangerous and increasingly fragile. And, like dial phones, outdated.

We need a decentralized energy system for the 21st century with clean, renewable sources such as solar with battery backup. That energy system provides multiple benefits. For example, a decentralized grid would enable utilities to better target specific outage areas, and local electricity would keep working even when the larger grid was down.

Communities should create their own local systems called microgrids. These enable public safety, cell towers, water supply, wastewater treatment and hospitals to keep serving us in times of crisis. With local microgrids, we reduce our dependence on high-voltage transmission lines, reduce the threat of fires and reduce the line loss when power is transmitted long distances.

The Climate Center, which his based in Santa Rosa, helped establish Sonoma Clean Power, the agency that since 2014 has bought electricity for local businesses and residents.

Next, the Climate Center helped spread this model throughout the state so that today 1 out of 4 Californians is served by a local agency like Sonoma Clean Power.

Now, the Climate Center is advocating for the advanced community energy program to create a clean, resilient, more affordable and equitable energy system throughout California.

Three of the community choice agencies that the Climate Center helped foster, Peninsula Clean Energy, East Bay Community Energy and Silicon Valley Clean Energy, have just partnered with Silicon Valley Power to initiate a microgrid program. That program will provide solar power combined with battery storage to approximately 6,000 homes and hundreds of businesses in Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

In the wake of our devastating fires and crippling outages, it is time for Sonoma County and other communities to begin developing resilient, efficient and safe microgrids. Our safety and health depend on it.

Let your elected leaders know that you want a safer, more resilient, 21st-century energy system. For more information and to take action:

Larry Robinson is a board member of the Climate Center and former mayor of Sebastopol. Ann Hancock is the co-founder and chief strategist of the Climate Center.

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