Congress, Think Small: We Don't Need a National Supergrid, We Need Microgrids

The agenda for Congress summer session is aggressive overloaded with health care, energy and spending legislation. The House of Representatives has promised it will pass both health care and energy bills this summer, putting California Congressman Henry Waxman in a bind. He plays a critical role in both debates, but time is short to develop the comprehensive energy bill necessary to accomplish myriad goals.

The House version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act is burdened with language that suggests the national backbone electricity transmission grid network, made popular thanks to Al Gore s and T. Boone Pickens robust publicity campaigns, is the tool that will deliver clean energy jobs, reduce global warning and establish energy independence for the U.S.

In reality, a backbone grid smart, dumb or otherwise will do little to address the troubles facing our ailing energy system. National grid advocates suggest that new transmission projects are the only way to move renewable energy like wind from the Great Plains and solar power from the sunny Southwest to locales with less access to renewable sources. But as electricity travels long distances, the system inherently becomes less efficient. The existing grid, which will serve as the foundation for a backbone grid, currently operates in the red: More than two-thirds of energy is lost before it ever reaches the customer.

Rather than fast-track legislation that is built on buzz and does little to improve energy efficiency or reliability, Congressman Waxman would be well-served to take a step back and consider some smaller ideas. He only has to look as far as his own backyard for examples of the innovation necessary to transform the energy system.

California utility companies, including Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, recently told the California Energy Commission that contrary to popular belief, smart meters are just part of California s smart grid projects. These major utilities are building smart microgrids, local distribution systems that work in concert with the larger bulk power grid, but are smart enough to rely on their own power sources during blackouts or when local power is more affordable. These community-scale (or smaller) systems generate power closer to the end-user and thus reduce waste. At the same time, these systems are built on smart technologies that allow communities to integrate renewable sources of energy that make sense for each location. This means solar in sunny areas and wind in windy areas, as well as energy storage systems that help every microgrid maintain affordability and reliability.

Waxman s counterparts in the Senate are taking a little more time to consider their version of the clean energy act. Some have wisely given more thought to the role of local distribution in creating an electricity system that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect the environment and give energy consumers what they need: a reliable, affordable, efficient power supply. For example, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has expressed support for a Distributed Generation Carve-Out that would require utilities to include small-scale renewable resources such as solar in their energy portfolios an approach necessary for the U.S. to truly establish energy independence.

I expect that if Congressman Waxman and his colleagues take the time to consider a local approach to electricity distribution, they will find the means necessary to accomplish the Administration s lofty climate change and energy goals. The microgrid alternative to grid renewal will effectively rebuild our obsolete power system from the bottom up, investing in infrastructure projects that will maximize the benefit to consumers instead of bankrolling a broken system.

With Congressmen Waxman and Ed Markey s leadership, the House should slow down and legislate an energy plan that transforms the system. We need legislation that incentivizes innovation and entrepreneurship in ways that can create new clean energy jobs, protect the environment and provide American homes and businesses with reliable, clean energy. By paving the way for development of smart, green microgrids, we will succeed in building more than a smart grid; we will build a stronger economy and a healthier environment.


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