A Microgrid Grows in Brooklyn
One New York City neighborhood’s efforts to pool local renewable energy sources reflects a larger push toward decentralized power production and consumption.
Martha Cameron has gone to great lengths to make her home self-sufficient. The 40-year resident of Brooklyn’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood installed 18 photovoltaic panels on the roof of her three-story brownstone in 2010, and during the warmer months it generates enough electricity to run the first two floors of the building. Cameron does not have batteries to store the energy, so she relies on the power company to absorb electricity from her solar panels and feed it back to her through the existing grid. In essence she is an energy producer for New York City’s utility company, Consolidated Edison, which buys electricity from her at wholesale rates and deducts the payment from her monthly power bill.
Under this arrangement, Cameron can never profit from her contributions. Nor can she manage her own power supply. And when the neighborhood’s electricity goes out, the utility company turns off her power, too, lest the energy she generates migrates through the lines and injures the people working on them. If the grid were to fail for a prolonged period, as it did during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the first priority would be to restore power to hospitals, shelters and community centers. Until that happens the sun could be high in the sky, yet no electrons would flow from Cameron’s roof.
But that could soon change. Cameron and many of her neighbors have signed onto a project called Brooklyn Microgrid, an organization installing infrastructure to enable a small network of Park Slope buildings—and another cluster in neighboring Gowanus—to sever themselves from the larger grid. The microgrid would independently distribute locally sourced electricity without mediation from the utility.
Channeling Edison’s Microgrid
In the short term Brooklyn Microgrid will operate as a backup option during storms, cyber attacks and other catastrophic disruptions. “The main driver for the project is resiliency in the face of grid events,” saysLawrence Orsini, the founder of LO3 Energy, a company that was started in 2012 and now funds the Brooklyn Microgrid project. “Keeping facilities that are critical for the health and well-being of the community up and running will be the focus at any stage of the development.” But in the long term the infrastructure that LO3 installs—and the corporate entities that it plans on establishing—could set participants on a path to fully owning the electricity their community generates, giving them a say in how to distribute it and possibly encouraging further investment in renewable energy sources.
Microgrids are hardly a new idea. When Thomas Edison first set the country on a course to light every house with tungsten filaments, he conceptualized a patchwork of small, independent utility providerstapping generation sources close to home. When alternating current won out as the standard in electrical power transmission, however, it immediately became feasible to transport it over long distances. And so began the centralization of U.S. electricity distribution.