Getting Back to the Micro Grid

Hyperlocal power grids may be the future of energy.

Like most people in this world, I hate to backtrack.

I believe at the core of this aversion is our desire to be accurate.   Backtracking represents a misstep, defeat, and as my son says, an epic fail.

Backtracking can be very helpful at times, though. For instance,  backtracking is very useful when one finds a dead end at the termination of a  one-way street.  Walking in a blizzard is another situation where backtracking comes in handy.

Backtracking is on my mind because I firmly believe that we as a nation are going to have to go back to successfully find energy stability.  I think it is time to start back tracking to our original electric grid, the micro grid.

Micro grids are small electric grids that are built to sustain the power requirements of a specific area.  Universities, small towns and military bases are early re-adopters of this concept.

I classify them as re-adopters because before our expansive electric grid made us the envy of the world, our towns and cities were independent of one another.  A town would generate power from local sources & use it locally.

The modern-day micro grids are becoming more appealing because our larger electric grid is becoming overloaded and our always-on power is becoming less and less reliable as it ages and our power requirements grow.

You can imagine how important these micro grids are for military bases.  A catastrophic event could knock power out very easily.  Bases equipped with micro-grids could continue operations in total, not just the few buildings that got the funding to have generators.

Imagine a small town like Purcelville, VA, having the ability to power the homes of its residents using power generated by wind turbines affixed to each home, solar panels mounted to schools and municipal buildings, a bank of generators with storage of natural gas to burn, and many other technologies to generate and store power.

Though and other unique power-generation tools, my favorite has to be the biofuel route.  Biofuel plants can turn almost anything into a fuel.  I have to believe that spending our tax dollars on building bio-fuel plants is an excellent idea and one that needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

The future of sustainable community micro grids may be new on technology, but the idea of micro grids is an old concept whose time has come.

Friends of the Reston Regional Library July 25, 2011 at 01:51 PM
Mark, how does this work when you have huge energy black holes like NYC and LA. When we lived out west, LA's water consumption was killing all the towns around them -- so everyone moved to LA, compounding the problem. Will it be the same with energy use? I love the idea of Reston having its own energy grid, but as it isn't an independent political entity, I can't see it happening easily. Plus. RA will have to get a lot more open-minded about solar panels!
Frank Sogandares July 25, 2011 at 02:32 PM
"RA will have to get a lot more open-minded about solar panels!"... and cutting trees! :)
Friends of the Reston Regional Library July 25, 2011 at 04:21 PM
Frank, I was going to put that as well, but then I realized that RA is actually not so bad about trimming trees which would help create "alleys" for solar rays -- if we were allowed to put the panels where the sun hits. For example, my house faces east, and solar panels would be great on the front side to collect for the first part of the day, but since it's the front of the house, I can't use them. To use them on the back side I'd have to not only trim my trees way back, but the next several yards around and behind me!
Diane Blust July 26, 2011 at 11:37 AM
Kelly and Frank: I think we might find RA much more amenable to changing covenants in ways that support a decreased carbon footprint and energy independence than you may believe. I have a Solatube on the front of my house - because our Cluster asked the DRB several years ago for blanket authorization to have one Solatube per roof elevation - regardless of the orientation of that roof elevation. Solar installers now have software that can show them exactly which branches to trim to create optimum conditions for solar installations. No need for total tree removal in many cases, Consider also neighborhood solar co-ops. Sustainable Reston (www.sustainablereston.org) is looking for folks for our Local Energy Working group - the mission of which will be to explore things like Mark discusses in this article. Obviously, we have to start with RA, but I am confident we will find a partner willing to work with homeowners on this important issue. And to Mark - great article, as usual. I think we need to talk about micro-micro grids - starting with my Cluster! We have 21 homes and enough open space (with no tree cutting) to set up a Cluster solar array. The main problem, of course, is money. Until we have better regulation and better incentives for renewables, systems like this are just a dream. I return to my mantra: If my ancestral farming village in Germany can become energy independent through a combination of wind, solar, biofules and micro-hydro, so can Reston!
Lucinda Shannon July 26, 2011 at 03:15 PM
I am really excited about this idea and I think that Reston could lead the way for the rest of the nation. Changing permitting and legislation to support renewable energy is a great start. And our cluster structure in Reston is so supportive of these types of initiatives. The June & July 2001 edition of Home Power magazine had a neat article about some communities in the United States that have already implemented micro power/community stations and are finding it to be profitable. Here is a link to the article: http://homepower.com/view/?file=HP143_pg70_Buchanan. I think we might have a challenge with the state regulations but I think it is worth a try. Lucinda
Diane Blust July 26, 2011 at 03:19 PM
Thanks, Lucinda!!! We just need to get to work!
Friends of the Reston Regional Library July 26, 2011 at 04:33 PM
I'm not in a cluster so I don't have the force of those numbers. A Solatube would bring light into darker areas, but doesn't capture energy for use in my home. RA is okay with tubes, and skylights (with limits, of course). But their position on panels stinks. I love the idea of software that will tell which branches to trim -- but the trees that interfere with me capturing solar energy are not on my property. Ancestral farming villages in Germany also have another thing going for them -- an ancestral ethic that causes them to work together for the good of all AND the enforcement arm leveraged through shame in not complying. I'm not sure Americans are wired the same way. Still, I'm interested in seeing where this conversation goes.
Diane Blust July 26, 2011 at 04:53 PM
Kelly, If we just leave it at a conversation level, it won't go very far! You're more than welcome to join us if you would like to help come up with solutions. As to your assertion that RA's position on solar systems "stinks", maybe it's been updated since you last checked? You can install a 96 sq ft system (I'm thinking this would be hotwater not for electricity) with a simple notification to RA and staff review - there's nothing about the panels being located in the rear of the house. There are some guidelines, but I've found the DRB to be very flexible in individual cases where "drawing outside the lines" is required. Elevated panels seem to be a problem, but I walk past a house every day that has elevated panels visible from the path. Have no idea if this is a DRB approved installation. Have you actually submitted an application and had it rejected? If so, that's something we need to work on. Can't help you with the neighbor's trees
Friends of the Reston Regional Library July 26, 2011 at 06:01 PM
The one for single family housing is dated 2003 but I don't see that it's a lot different from for clusters. 96 square feet max, 3 panels, flat mount. The guideline says: Elevated solar collectors are discouraged. If necessary, they must not be visible from neighboring properties, streets or pathways. The one you see from the path is probably not DRB approved if they're enforcing this guideline. It says it in more than one place, so I'd think they're serious about it. We looked into the solar panels a while back. The cost of installation in exchange for the modest return deterred us, but since we needed a new roof anyway, we went with an energy friendly one. I was mixing up the requirement that vegetable gardens be in the back or side (i.e. not visible) with this one -- another thing that we could do to be more 'green' but that it is impractical to do with the way our house is situated. I agree that the 96sq feet would be for the hot water heater. With our climate, it wouldn't be practical to convert individual houses. But you may be on to something with the clusters, or with a Reston-wide opt in. Of course, that gets back to the issue of Reston being some kind of political entity so that it can negotiate as an entity on behalf of its constituents to get a deal with the power companies.


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