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Dec 2, 2020

One key to adapting to climate change: Having your own energy grid

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Microgrids are decentralized, often using solar energy as a source.

Increasingly, in the U.S., people are having to adapt to a world without reliable power. Storms, fires, and even power shut-offs designed to prevent fires have lots of people trying to figure out local solutions for electricity.

One solution is microgrids — decentralized power generation often with solar as its source. I spoke with Jose Alfaro, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. He says microgrids can represent freedom. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Headshot of Jose Alfaro, a professor at the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan.
Jose Alfaro. (Photo courtesy of Dave Brenner)

Jose Alfaro: It is a way for us to say, “Okay, if this can’t be solved from the top down, then we will solve it from the bottom up.” And I will create these microgrids that allow me to be much more renewable than before. I mean, the United States’ transmission and distribution system is probably the largest machine in the world. And we are basically all tied to it, and microgrids allow those pockets of communities to not necessarily completely disengage, but to have more autonomy over how they’re engaging with that machine.

Molly Wood: Is that a problem for the machine? Like, is there resistance from utilities to this kind of increasing use?

Alfaro: Yes, there is definitely resistance from the utilities. There is a theory called “the death spiral.” And that is the idea that the utilities have all these investments, and they have to charge enough to be able to upkeep those investments. And so if I lose a pocket of demand, because they installed their own microgrid, then I’m going to have to charge more per unit energy for the rest of the people. And then they’re going to think, “My electricity is getting too high. Let’s do our own microgrid.” And they do that and [it] becomes a vicious cycle until the utility has to completely go broke. That is part of the theory behind the resistance. And I think there’s a little bit of truth to that, there is some significant truth, but also I think there is an opportunity there, where the utilities can think more creatively about business models that can allow them to incorporate these types of microgrids into their models.

Wood: I feel like the conversation about the grid is a conversation that’s been going on for a really long time. At least here in the U.S., do you see the push for microgrids as something that could ultimately force that change when it’s been slow to come?

Alfaro: Most of my work is abroad, it’s not in the U.S. And I see it in the U.S. as just a simmering movement towards resilience and renewables. But I think that as we see the examples happening in other countries, that movement might get more steam and might become more of a boil, and do fix some of that. I think there’s a lot of technical research we need to do in the U.S., because we can’t just throw away the thousands of miles of distribution networks, etc., that we have.

Wood: Tell me what’s happening in the developing world where you do a lot of microgrids there? How big of an opportunity is that for using renewables, for avoiding a huge transmission and distribution network? What’s happening?

Alfaro: Actually, in India, we just finished a study — very interesting — where people had a microgrid, they extended the central grid, and now they keep both connections. And they keep paying for both connections — one for resilience and the other one because it gives them a little bit more power type of thing. But the microgrid’s still there, still competing. We’re also seeing a lot of circular economy opportunities, at least in my space, where we look at biomass residues and farming communities and agricultural communities are able to create their own energy through biomass residues and gasification or thermal technologies, and complement that with solar energy. And they have, basically, a very stable microgrid that is a lot cheaper than the central grid they could get connected to.

Related audio: More insight from from our listeners

When we started our reporting for this series, we asked you how you’re adapting either your mindset or your actual lifestyles. Carrie Blowers’ parents live on a farm outside of Portland, Oregon, which is where Blowers and her wife, Lindsey Kennedy, thought they might have to flee in case a natural disaster hit. But natural disasters can turn life upside down pretty quickly.

A photo of Lindsey Kennedy (L) and Carrie Blowers (R) on a boat.
Lindsey Kennedy, left, and Carrie Blowers, right. (Photo courtesy of Blowers)

Carrie Blowers: So, just recently, my family got evacuated from the fires that were going on here. They’d never imagined that they would have to come here. [Their] farm had always been our evacuation plan in case of an emergency. And it was a little bit shocking to have my entire family staying in this little house in the city.

During that time, life was a little out of control. So the way that I decided to kind of take control of things was to create [an] emergency food kit, emergency waters. Also I bought a little inverter, so we can use our electric car as a backup power in case of an emergency. This is just going to be a really basic, little device that will help us to stay connected. We can plug in our modem, our computer or cellphones and maybe some basic lights.

An inverter Blowers and Kennedy bought as an electric backup in case of an emergency.
The inverter Blowers and Kennedy bought. (Photo courtesy of Blowers)

Lindsey Kennedy: Emotionally, it’s everyday thinking about what we are going to do if an emergency happens or climate changes to the point where our normal living won’t exist. I mean, I feel concerned for other communities who will, essentially, be climate refugees. And I think we’re already seeing it in certain parts of the U.S. and definitely certain parts of the world.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer