The Rise of the Microgrid

In 1969 no one could have imagined the benefits brought by the Internet – and in 2013 no one can properly imagine the benefits which a new approach to our electricity infrastructure will bring.

In 2003 outages on 3 Ohio transmission cables caused over 50 million people and much of the US Eastern Seaboard to lose power. New research published in August provides little comfort.

The argument goes that formal power grid structures, unlike their informal social media counterparts, are more dependant on central structure and will by their nature collapse quickly when destabilized.

Back in the Cold War, the telecommunications grid systems was vulnerable to the same risk – that it could easily be knocked out. The solution to this problem was a government project called ARPANET, which was the foundation of today’s internet; A highly interconnected, decentralized communications system which has profoundly changed the world.

Ironically, and arguably, a great vulnerability faced by the internet in the US is the long-term loss of electricity from the out of date American power grid.

There are no easy answers – but there are some interesting recent developments.

Microgrids are (comparatively) small clusters of electricity production, storage and transmission which are designed to operate independent of a larger transmission system, bypassing that system altogether in the event of an outage.

The idea is that these independent clusters can function – when the larger grid is out. Exactly the same principles which gave us the internet.

Microgrids can also be designed to operate efficiently with the unique demands of renewable energy – making them ideal for a world of more regionalized and mixed sources of electricity production.

Microgrids were in high visibility after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the US in 2012.

This summer the state of Connecticut, a frequent victim of hurricane damage, began an innovative program to fund the development of 9 microgrids throughout the state.

Along the same lines the California Energy Commission recently announced that it is funding a microgrid demonstration project at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

Also in California, the US Navy this week announced that it was taking a step further by linking three microgrids: at the hospital a Naval Base San Diego, a data center at Naval Base Coronado and at Naval Base Point Loma – providing a secure centrally managed microgrid.

Lets move past our Victorian age electricity grid – reworking the way we think, innovate and invest in our electricity infrastructure will reshape our economy for the better.

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