Where does your power come from?

Years ago I worked as a home energy auditor. I examined homes for opportunities to become more energy efficient. These audits looked at heating & cooling systems, lighting, water heating, appliances, and other energy uses. I learned how to tell if a home could retain the power required to operate it or if it wasted heat and electricity. Today, in my role as a planner, I try to apply some of this logic when I look at neighborhoods and commercial districts. But, on the topic of energy, there is a bigger question that demands a deeper level of examination.

Your city depends on electricity. Not just for the lights in homes and offices, but for the survival of its citizens.

Electricity is essential to operating critical municipal operations. Without electricity your city could not operate its wastewater treatment plant. Your city may also depend on power to operate pumping stations that remove storm water.  Furthermore, no power means no refrigeration in your grocery store, no ventilation in your hospital, and no traffic lights. If you’ve witnessed a wide-scale power outage firsthand you have some idea of the vulnerability embedded in our power system.

Here is a good question for your city’s leaders: how long could your city continue normal operations if it weren’t connected to the electrical grid? Lately the term “resilience” has become a buzz-word referring to a city’s ability to withstand and bounce back from a major disruption. While this focus on resilience has led to some improvements in thinking about responses to disasters, in many places, the municipal relationship with its power supplier remains unquestioned.

Relatively few cities operate municipal power plants – and those that do often rely on purchased coal and natural gas. It is much more common for a city to rely on a distant, investor owned power plant for all of its electricity needs. A century ago, when fossil fuel energy systems came into existence, it made sense to locate these noxious uses far away from population centers. Nobody wants to live near a noisy, dirty, coal burning power plant. But this meant that massive high voltage transmission lines were required between power plants and populated areas. Due to physics, these lengthy transmission lines further reduce the efficiency of our power system.

Why do communities choose to rely on privately held monopolies and distant power sources for such a vital resource?

The vast majority of American cities have yet to embrace the renewable power sources that are freely available. In my view, the most resilient solution is the one that relies on the fewest external resources. This reduces complexity and fragility. What does a resilient municipal power system look like?

  • It maximizes the efficiency of buildings and systems.
  • It can supply 100% of its demand with renewable resources.
  • It minimizes transmission losses.
  • It stores excess power in batteries.
  • It provides opportunities for residents and businesses to produce and sell clean power to one another.

City leaders that are serious about addressing resiliency and carbon need to take a close look at where their power comes from. The technology to power our cities using renewable energy exists today. Using satellite imagery and climate data, Project Sunroof can tell you how much of your city can harness solar power and many states have detailed mapping of community-scale wind turbine potential. While there will be challenges in transitioning to a clean, local power – the benefits will pay off for generations.