Editorial: Micro-grids are a revolution coming

The most exciting news story of the week was the announcement by Mary Powell, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power, that the utility and NRG Energy, Inc. of New Jersey were partnering to test the viability of micro-grids in Vermont. The idea is the type of revolutionary thinking that could provide long-term energy security at a local, regional and national level, while also improving long-term political and economic stability.
So-called micro-grids would create smaller centers of electrical generation that stand independent of the national power grids. Those grids are interconnected to huge regional power plants across the nation. The advantage is that power can be readily shared from one region to another; though the corresponding disadvantage is that a power failure in one part of the nation, or a brown-out, can lead to huge disruptions across the country. The national grid system is also vulnerable to severe weather events, a potential target for terrorists and other threats that could cause significant national disruptions at a huge cost to the country.
Micro-grids would be locally generated power stations small enough to power a large business or a shopping district or residential neighborhood, for example. It’s the energy equivalent of buying food from a local cooperative or farmers’ market. How sweet! How Vermont!
It’s also smart and forward thinking.
As Powell explains, “the system we have now is very challenged because it’s really big,” inflexible and vulnerable. Made of up 130 million wooden utility poles nationwide that are laced with tens of thousands of miles of power lines, the annual cost of repair due to storm and other damage is significant and growing annually because of the increasingly severe weather events due to climate change. Just in GMP’s Vermont territory, Powell says the company spends millions of dollars each year repairing utility poles and wires damaged by fallen trees and other weather-related destruction.
Describing the current energy infrastructure as “archaic,” and “made up of twigs and twine,” she said the nation will spend tens of billions of dollars over the next decade on routine and storm-related repairs to the current power system.
A better system should be developed for the 21st century, she maintains, and that system will revolve around smaller grids of locally generated power. To accomplish that in Vermont, Powell says GMP will purchase “intellectual capital” from NRG Energy (which is distinct from NRG Systems in Hinesburg) to produce micro-grids powered by solar and energy storage units.
NRG President and CEO David Crane admits that battery storage is still expensive and will need government support initially, but notes that natural gas (to date) is the most cost effective fuel source to create power in storage batteries and in micro-grids, along with other types of renewable energy.
The micro-grids would also include electric vehicle charging stations as a natural part of the station. While Rutland is in line for some of the early test markets for such a system, perhaps Middlebury’s Marble Works area and downtown would also be a prime location for an early test site with GMP. Town fathers might explore the opportunity, which could be another feather in the town’s hat as it marches its way to an energy efficient future with its soon-to-be net-zero rated new town offices.
Angelo S. Lynn

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