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Microgrid summit in Denver brings together unlikely allies

DENVER–A meeting hosted by the Independence Institute and Clean Energy Action on November 8 brought together a diverse and unlikely group of more than 75 people and experts from all sides of the political and environmental spectrum interested in exploring the current state of the art, the opportunities for individual wealth creation, and the politics of microgrids.

The Independence Institute*, a free market think tank in Denver, calls microgrids a “growing global trend in electricity generation and distribution” that move away from the traditional centralized electrical distribution system.  Clean Energy Action is a Boulder-based group that, according to its website, “works at the local, state, and national level on issues related to clean energy and climate change mitigation.”

“This is all about empowering individuals to have the freedom to generate and distribute their own electricity,” said Amy Oliver Cooke, Executive Vice President and Director of the Energy & Environmental Policy Center for the Independence Institute.

“People should be worried about what is happening in California,” Cooke continued. “Think about this, could you afford to not have electricity for days on end? Could you do it? If you’re answer to that is no, then you should be interested in microgrids as a topic of conversation as part of your own life.”

Californians have been suffering repeated intentional blackouts by Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s largest monopoly power provider, lasting as long as three days. The company claims grid shutdowns affecting as many as 2,000,000 customers at a time are necessary as a public safety measure after massive fires caused by its aging transmission lines sparking in high winds caused some $18 billion in damages and killed more than 100 people since 2017.

A diverse array of citizens and expert gather for the first annual Microgrid Summit hosted by the Independence Institute in Denver November 8, 2019.

“It’s interesting how politics makes strange bedfellows,” said State Representative Edie Hooton D-Boulder, Majority Caucus Chair and Vice Chair of the Energy and Environment Committee. “When you have a Senator from Weld County and a Representative from Boulder County who have the same aspirations for competition and choice then it’s worth paying attention to.”  Hooton is referring to Senator John Cooke*, a Republican from Greeley.

The City of Boulder has been trying since 2011 to free itself from its state-authorized monopoly power provider Xcel Energy so it can operate its own municipal power system. A vote is expected in 2021 to allow the municipalization to proceed, but obstacles, including the cost of acquiring Xcel assets, have yet to be overcome.

“It was very exciting to see both sides of the aisle come together for an issue that everyone realizes needs to change,” said Philip Rutkowski, Regional Director for Wärtsilä North America, Inc., a thermal generation and power storage company. “There’s a transformation going on in utilities that requires many different resources to come together to help that transformation happen.”

New technologies in power generation, including renewables like wind and solar, combined with advanced control systems hold promise for a fundamental change in power generation, distribution, reliability and energy economics.

In the past electrical grids have been necessarily operated by large companies that can build and maintain the vast network of transmission lines covering every industrialized nation on earth. For technical reasons power generation has been limited to “spinning resources” that involve large plants with a relatively small number of generators turned by turbines using water, either directly or as high-pressure steam.

Traditional plants using coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear and geothermal sources to create steam and dams using water and gravity to directly turn turbines have been the primary sources of energy since the 1800s.

In the U.S. today the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says there are about 9,700 powerplants larger than 1 megawatt. Of those, 64% use fossil fuels to generate electricity, 19% use nuclear power and 17% are renewable sources including hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass.

Until recently the primary obstacles to the use of renewables like wind and solar were their intermittency, lack of storage capacity and impact on grid stability.

Electrical grids are dependent on stable delivery of electrical energy as alternating current at a very specific frequency of 60 cycles per second (60Hz). Even tiny variations in grid synchronization can cause widespread power shutdowns.

But new computer technology allows smaller generation sources like home rooftop solar to contribute synchronized power to the grid at the required frequency.

The advancement of battery technology holds promise for storing small-source electricity to make it possible to decentralize power generation while maintaining a stable nationwide grid.

Advances in communications technology and computerized control of small-source generation system and battery storage that allow microgrids to talk to one another and the large grid producers make microgrids a useful reality.

The largest obstacle to microgrids in Colorado is the state-sanctioned monopolization of power generation.

Under this long-standing system, which is seen nationwide, the state Public Utilities Commission grants exclusive licenses to large power producers to provide all electrical power within their geographical area. This makes trades or sales of locally-produced power among members on a microgrid illegal.

But participants at the Microgrid Summit hope that the monopoly over power production can be broken, or at least adjusted to allow and facilitate microgrids within the larger service areas.

Speakers at the summit included:

*Complete Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute.

*Sen. Cooke is the husband of the Independence Institute’s Amy Cooke.

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