Leslie Glustrom, Amy Oliver Cooke, and Peter Lilienthal, spoke to Boulder Rotary Club on Friday about micro grids -why they are being used, how they can change the current utility system and the benefits of making that change.
A micro grid is an electrical network which has a source of energy (usually something local and non-coal such as solar, wind or thermal) that is distributed in a localized area. Sometimes micro grids can be attached to a national grid but are able to function independently from that national grid system.
Amy Oliver Cooke and Leslie Glustrom may come from different life experiences and political beliefs, but when Leslie and Amy met at the Public Utilities Commission, they found they had in common, an interest in freedom, affordable power, a clean environment and energy development. And they felt, all of those interests are achievable and not mutually exclusive. Where do those ideas all come together? They come together in micro grids.
Amy said that micro grids appeal to a free market capitalist because it puts people in charge of their own power. Colorado, Amy says, is going more toward a system of allowing citizens to have power usage choice, although we do not have that right now. Right now, Colorado citizens must use the power providers authorized by the government. She pointed out that there is an economic cost to a transition like this.
Part of the cost of transition is associated with the larger issue of our national energy grids which need significant maintenance or replacement. Micro grids are a way to deal with that larger grid issue as well. Amy explained that micro grids might be the size of a city like Boulder or as small as a household or a collection of neighbors. For example, if Amy lived next door to a family that wanted to invest in solar power and she wanted to invest in batteries, they could decide to share- she stores the power they produce, and each household uses the power within that agreement.
Amy believes that we, citizens of Colorado, should have the freedom to make that type of agreement- to generate power within their own properties and the power to control what happens to it.
Amy said that her organization, the Independence Institute, wrote a series of articles about micro grids and it was written by authors under the age of 22. Why is that important? For younger people, the idea of peer- to- peer energy sharing is very natural. (You can read the series of articles from the Independence Institute by clicking HERE
Amy said that while wind and solar power components are decreasing in price, they still take up a lot of space. Therefore, if space (on land) is not available or we choose to use the land for different purposes, “it makes much more sense to be able to do this all in our own homes.” Additionally, this type of system makes attacking the energy grid at a state or national level, much more difficult. Centralized grids are a target.
Amy recommended the book, Five Days at Memorial Hospital: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink. (more about the book HERE
.) Amy said the book reports on what happened at Memorial Hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She said this book really illustrates the social cost of not having electricity.
Amy ended her portion of the program by reiterating that micro grids allow people to have the freedom to choose, it is an affordable power option, it is a cleaner environmental option and it’s a way to develop our resources responsibly.
Leslie Glustrom, CU Biochemist, Environmental Activist and wife to BRC’s own Merrill Glustrom, believes, as Amy Oliver Cooke, that markets should be opened for more innovation and more competition. Micro grids are one way to innovate and Leslie said Boulder is lucky to have one of the world’s experts on micro grids in our community- Peter Lilienthal. He spoke after Leslie, about what micro grids are.
Peter Lilienthal lives and works in Boulder and after working as Senior Economist for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, founded HOMER Energy. HOMER makes a system that optimizes micro grids and distributed energy systems.
He began by saying that the United State’s centralized power grid made sense when the power grid was being built and developed. At that time, it was only the big coal plants that could handle the energy needs of the communities they provided service for. As Peter said, because of economies of scale, “nobody builds a small coal plant.” The entire energy industry and grid was built on this centralized basis.
However, the technologies that are being developed now, are not inherently centralized, they are inherently modular. In fact, because of the new technologies around micro grids, most of the work Peter and his colleagues do is in poorer countries that do not have centralized power grids.
Peter outlined what he calls the “6 Ds of our energy future.” Those are: distributed, decentralized, democratized, diverse, digitized and decarbonized. Having already spoken about distributed, and Amy having spoken about democratized, he explored decentralized.
If a country or a region has a centralized industry, that means there is a centralized technology, which leads to a centralized economy, which leads to a centralized power structure.
Diversity is equally important for a robust system. Peter noted that solar is a big section of energy production but it is not the only section, there is wind, water, thermal and other technologies that allow a new system like micro grids to grow. He also said that digital, the fifth “D” in his analysis of our energy future, makes it possible for people and organizations to use a micro grid. And “decarbonized” is a strong motivation for many people to get involved in micro grid technology.
Peter went on to talk about the clean power evolution. He started with the idea of smart grids. Boulder, he said was supposed to be the “smart grid city.” Peter said that relying on large utilities is not an effective way to innovate toward a more diversified distributed energy delivery system. Utility companies have a job- deliver electricity to their customers. Utility companies work with the national electrical grid which Peter says is, “the largest and most complicated machine ever.” The utility companies have to service the grid, expand it, and monitor it, all within a very regulated and security sensitive environment. Peter said that it is much easier to be innovative when there is no underlying centralized system already in place.
Peter gave an example of what a modern micro grid looks like:
Why would people want micro grids? Peter says there are many reasons, but three of the strongest are; reliability, energy cost savings and reduced emissions.
Peter explained that his company helps communities, and organizations decide what type of alternative energy they may want to generate, (based on the site, the resources, and the access to technology) how the energy will be distributed. Peter says he’s worked all over the world with these micro grid systems and the technologies that make it possible.
Did you miss Friday’s meeting? Your faithful reporter did so I caught up by watching the program on Boulder Rotary Club’s YouTube channel. You can watch the program if you too missed the meeting, or want to pass it along to friends who might be interested in seeing this fascinating discussion of energy, environmental concerns and individual’s choices- just click HERE
You can see the rest of the meeting by clicking HERE
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