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Building Resilient, Clean Energy Communities: Current Microgrid Policies in the U.S.

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Climate change is leading to unprecedented natural disasters ranging from hurricanes and severe storms, floods, heat waves and wildfires, and frequently lead to large-scale power outages. According to U.S. Congresswoman Barragán, “We experienced this…throughout California in September when record heat waves created a state of emergency and caused tens of thousands of Southern California residents to lose power. Keeping the lights on and maintaining critical health care and emergency services can be the difference between life and death.”

Recently, there have been many technological advances that solve the challenges that communities like those in California are facing. Community microgrids, for example, help provide resiliency to communities by enabling them to generate and store electricity and disconnect from the main energy grid in the case of unplanned outages caused by wildfires, public safety power shutoffs, blackouts, or other disasters. Expanding or scaling up these systems is vital to provide access to reliable energy to greater numbers of customers, while reaping financial benefits from economies of scale. Scaling up community microgrids while ensuring equitable access to resilient and renewable power will require new policies and financial mechanisms.

There are already several pieces of legislation that address the importance of microgrids, such as SB 1339, which was approved in 2018 and granted the California Public Utilities Commission until December 2020 to develop “standards, protocols, guidelines, methods, rates, and tariffs that serve to support and reduce barriers to microgrid deployment.” New legislative initiatives in both California and at the federal level are looking to expand on earlier legislation to bolster community energy resilience and the expansion of microgrids. For example, the CLEAN Future Act (H.R. 1512) introduced in the US House of Representatives on March 2 includes $1.5 billion per year in grant funding for clean energy microgrid projects. Other proposed bills to watch are California’s Community Energy Resilience Act (SB 99) and the federal Energy Resilient Communities Act.

California’s Community Energy Resilience Act (SB 99)

Given California’s recent wildfires, the decision to implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) by major utilities—including PG&E—highlights the need for community microgrids in the state. 

On December 28, 2020, Senator Bill Dodd (D-CA) introduced Senate Bill 99 (SB 99), or the Community Energy Resilience Act of 2021. Just recently, on May 25th, the bill passed California’s senate with unanimous support and now heads to the Assembly. SB 99 would require the California State Energy Resources Conservation and Development Commission—the primary agency responsible for energy policy and planning—to create a grant program for local governments to develop community energy resilience plans. The bill lays out key guiding principles, such as ensuring fair access to reliable energy, and would require community energy resilience plans to identify areas that are most at risk of losing power and ensure the maintenance of a reliable electricity supply at critical facilities. Local community choice aggregators and regional energy collaboratives will be authorized to apply for funding on behalf of local governments, if requested to do so. The bill would also enable expedited permit review of distributed energy resources.

Additionally, SB 99 requires the SERCDC to maintain a public database with information on the local governments that receive grant funding and their specific community energy resilience projects. Local governments would be required to submit community resilience plans and an expense report to the SERCDC within six months of the plan’s completion. In turn, the new bill would require the SERCDC to provide annual information about the grant funding program to the California Legislature and ensure the yearly reports are made public on the Commission’s website.

SB 99 is now being debated in California’s Assembly—which comes just as the state is moving into the Western wildfire season, which will arguably lead to additional planned power shutoffs. 

Federal Energy Resilient Communities Act

In 2019, 546 new microgrids were constructed in the U.S. but nearly 90 percent of these microgrids were powered by fossil fuels. The federal Energy Resilient Communities Act would promote the installation of new microgrids that are entirely powered by clean energy and “will help at-risk communities recover from extreme weather events by centering them at the heart of the clean energy revolution.” 

On January 25, 2021, Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-CA) and Congresswoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY) reintroduced the Energy Resilient Communities Act. 

Key features of the act include:

  • $1.5 billion in annual grants for clean energy microgrids; $50 million in annual grants for technical assistance;
  • A minimum of $150 million/year reserved for funding the installation of community-owned energy infrastructure;
  • Grant applications can be submitted by non-profits, tribal agencies, state and local governments, and utility companies; 
  • Projects are prioritized according to a range of criteria, including the potential for pollution reduction, public health benefits, efficient land use, and whether the plan is a community-owned energy system; and
  • Projects have hiring objectives to maximize local employment opportunities

The new Energy Resilient Communities Act would establish the U.S.’s first federal program to create 100% clean energy microgrids, which would provide electricity for key infrastructure (e.g., hospitals, water systems, senior housing, community centers, and grocery stores) in local communities following extreme weather events like wildfires, power outages, and hurricanes. The act also aims to promote environmental justice and equitable access to energy by prioritizing microgrid grant applications from communities that are most vulnerable to power outages. The construction of clean energy microgrids will be crucial in the face of rolling blackouts by allowing local communities to go off the main grid, or “island,” and will help combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions and generating green jobs.

Combating Climate Change

Both the California Community Energy Resilience Act and the federal Energy Resilient Communities Act have received wide support from members of Congress and organizations such as The Climate CenterThe Center for Biological Diversity (PDF), and the Sierra Club (PDF). These new policies, together with other community-focused mechanisms, can play an essential role in the transition to a cleaner, greener future for all. 

Cover image credit: Oak Ridge National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons

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