Dear EcoNews

Do you have burning questions about environmental issues? Send your queries to caroline@yournec.org and we will find local experts to answer your questions.

Dear EcoNews, 

I’ve heard that a decentralized household energy system can help cities be more efficient and resilient than using the huge for-profit power plants & transmission lines that are so common. How exactly would something like that work? How can I talk to my city about transitioning away from “the grid”?  

Sincerely, 

Energy Independent

 

Dear Energy Independent,

EcoNews asked Redwood Coast Energy Authority to provide a response to your questions. Here’s a joint perspective from RCEA’s Richard Engel, who oversees the Community Choice Energy program to supply clean and renewable electricity, and Stephen Kullmann, who runs RCEA’s energy efficiency programs:

There is a lot to be said for meeting our resource needs through small, decentralized systems, and RCEA supports this with our net energy metering program that pays people for surplus energy they generate with rooftop solar and other household-scale, grid-connected renewable energy systems. RCEA is also preparing to enter a partnership to make energy storage systems available for homes and businesses. As you say, such decentralized systems can be efficient and provide resiliency by keeping the lights on when central grid power becomes unavailable – something we have seen more of in recent years, for a number of reasons.

However, a centralized grid does offer some important benefits. Watt for watt, a few large utility-scale solar and wind projects can provide power at a fraction of the cost of hundreds or thousands of rooftop systems, which often require costly custom design and configuration for each location. And consider the fact that the sun is always shining somewhere, the wind is always blowing somewhere, but not necessarily here when you need the energy. A regional transmission network provides the means to move energy from these intermittent resources over long distances, providing greater reliability for all energy users as an ever larger fraction of our power comes from renewable resources. For these reasons, RCEA sources most of the power for Community Choice Energy from larger, centralized renewable and carbon-free power projects.

In addition to supply-side solutions (where we get our energy), it’s important to address demand-side solutions (how we use that energy), and this is where you as an energy user have the most power to make change. While centralized energy production has economy of scale advantages over smaller, decentralized generation, eliminating the need to produce the energy in the first place is the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution overall. 

There are both technological and behavioral solutions to reducing energy needs, and these can happen at both the individual and societal level. An example of a behavioral decision on the societal level is on how much street lighting is needed and when. Technological solutions can include choosing the most efficient types of street lighting and installing smart controls. There are also many technological upgrades possible for our distribution grid, which can reduce the need for new generation. On an individual level, technological solutions involve choosing more efficient lighting and appliances, while behavioral solutions include turning off lights when not in use and making choices to dry clothes outside instead of a dryer. RCEA has long offered programs to assist Humboldt County residents and businesses make energy saving choices, and we will be rolling out some new ones soon. 

Through its Community Choice Energy and demand-side management programs, RCEA has taken on the challenging task of providing energy solutions that are affordable, efficient, reliable, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. Our analysis shows this is best done through a combination of centralized and home-scale strategies. 

Please have a look at our RePower Humboldt strategic plan, updated in 2019 through extensive public input, which details the many measures we are now working to implement in Humboldt County (https://redwoodenergy.org/services/planning/). Please let your city leaders know which of these strategies are most important to you! 

While we do not recommend an elimination of the grid or centralized energy production, there is much that can be done to increase its efficiency and resiliency, including the promotion of distributed generation. And everything we can do individually and collectively to reduce our energy consumption is the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce greenhouse gases and the need to produce and move electrons through the grid. 

Sincerely,

Richard Engel, Director of Power Resources 

Stephen Kullmann, Director of Demand-Side Management