Reclaim your neighborhood’s power

Your home is connected to a vast electrical power system. It’s often impossible to know precisely where your power comes from at any given time. While this system has worked well for decades, there is growing evidence that a clean energy revolution is coming soon.

I believe  communities across North America have a unique opportunity to reclaim control of the generation and distribution of their power sources at the scale of the city block.  There are two ways to accomplish this transition to block-scale power grids:

  1. Retrofit – reconfigure existing urban areas to take advantage of new technologies.
  2. Greenfield – build new neighborhoods hardwired for clean block-scale power.

Each of these approaches has its advantages and disadvantages. As urban populations grow, city leaders will need to consider the implications of both approaches. Before exploring how these two approaches differ, let’s consider what they share in common:

  • An effort to maximize local consumption of locally generated renewable resources – these may include solar power and geothermal to name two.
  • Installation of local energy storage systems (aka batteries) for private residences and local demands.
  • A transition from Alternating Current (AC) electric system to Direct Current (DC) where appropriate to enhance system wide efficiency.
  • A renegotiation of the relationship between the community and the utility provider(s).
  • Benefits to residents in the form of lower power bills and improved local control.
  • Benefits to the municipality in the form of more resilient neighborhoods that can withstand severe weather and other events that disrupt the current energy system.

The sections below consider five categories of issues for retrofit and greenfield block-scale grids. Here is a key to the categories in the tables below:

infrastructurelegalfinancialdemocracyresilience
🛠💵🗽🗿

retrofit Block-Scale Power Grids

What if you and several of your neighbors wanted to start a block-scale power grid? On it’s face, this idea seems difficult. Is it really worth the trouble for a neighborhood to take control of its power system?

Lets consider the benefits and drawbacks of retrofitted block-scale energy systems from three perspectives:

  • The resident who owns or rents a home in the area
  • The developer who builds homes in the area
  • The municipality who may own, license or operate the newly established system.
CategoryIssueDeveloperResidentCity Government
🛠Roads and pipes are in place. This saves the developer money but forces the new energy system to work around existing infrastructure.
🛠Limited options for siting new equipment. The placement of energy storage systems, meters, conduit, and other hardware is limited by the existing configuration of buildings and parcels. Ideally equipment may be able to be stored in underground vaults, but that may not be feasible or cost effective.
Requires clear ownership & maintenance agreements. Defining who is responsible for the O&M costs is essential for long term viability. This is especially true for shared components of the system. In neighborhoods with existing utility infrastructure, it may be difficult to negotiate such agreements.
Requires new utility easements. This adds some complexity to the project, but with the property owner's' consent, this should be easy.
May require changes to Right-of-Way dimensions or encroachment permits. Depending on the ownership and operating model, and the system requirements, it may be necessary to adjust the ROW. This would add complexity to the project.
Potentially unprecedented permitting process. The variety and nature of permits required to establish this system may be unheard of. However, once the process is established, it can be applied to other areas in the municipality.
💵Improves housing affordability for current residents. The overhead costs for the system should be lower than the utility because the supplied power comes from sunlight and other renewable sources.
💵Potential for lower initial capital costs. A retrofit block scale grid system could have lower financial risk for developers if the municipality owns and operates the system.
🗽Requires cooperation between municipality and incumbent utility. This could be complicated and time consuming.
🗽Potential to allow residents more influence over their utility. Depending on the organizational model, residents (aka ratepayers) may have substantially more influence over the operation of the utility system.
🗽Scalable to many neighborhoods. Once a model is established for retrofitting, it can be applied throughout the jurisdiction, allowing all residents more control over their energy system.
🗿Improves community resilience for current residents. Because the block uses renewable energy, it is less susceptible to widespread power loss events.

Greenfield Block-Scale Power Grids

In my view, this approach seems simpler than the retrofit model. However there are some important constraints that limit this concept.  The table below considers this approach from the same three perspectives.

CategoryIssueDeveloperResidentCity Government
🛠Building and energy systems can be optimized at construction. Features like thermal mass, shared hot water, and daylighting can drive down energy demands.
🛠New infrastructure can be located & designed tastefully. The placement of energy storage systems, meters, conduit, and other hardware can be done in a way that minimizes its impact on residents.
🛠No existing infrastructure (roads, pipes, &c.). This increases development costs but also makes it easier to configure block-scale power systems.
🛠Relatively easy to integrate security systems. Wireless antennas, motion sensors, video cameras, and other security features can be hardwired into the infrastructure during construction.
🛠Less likely to be a walkable neighborhood. Greenfield sites typically exist at the urban fringe meaning services and jobs are far away. These areas are more likely to depend on automobiles.
🛠Community can be wired for Direct Current (DC) where appropriate. This can improve system-wide efficiency and reduces shared operating costs.
A range of ownership & maintenance models can be considered. Because there are no incumbent utilities, the developer should have more options regarding O&M costs.
Utility easements included in final plat. This reduces the project's complexity for the developer.
Potentially unprecedented permitting process. The variety and nature of permits required to establish this system may be unheard of. However, once the process is established, it can be applied to other developments.
Does not require modification to existing Right-of-Way. This reduces the project's complexity for the developer and municipality.
💵Requires more upfront financing. Instead of relying on an external utility, the shared infrastructure for a block-scale grid will be provided by a developer, thus requiring more financing than a conventional project.
💵May add risk to development. Lenders may charge higher interest rates on construction loans because the block-scale grid model is untested. Furthermore, the developer may be on the hook for a share of O+M costs for the system before all units are sold.
🗽All residents can be required to support system operating and maintenance costs. An agreement to support the system's O&M costs may be a condition for all buyers and tenants served by the system. While it reduces choices for the residents, it ensures that the system will be financially solvent.
🗽Potential to allow residents more influence over their utility. Depending on the organizational model, residents (aka ratepayers) may have substantially more influence over the operation of the utility system.
🗿Improves community resilience for current residents. Because the area uses renewable energy, it is less susceptible to widespread power loss events.

Imagining a One Block Grid

Using a sample city block from my neighborhood in Savannah, I sketched a concept of a block-scale grid. The video below examines some of the modifications that would be needed to retrofit an urban neighborhood to achieve energy independence. Since this block exists in an urban area, residents have a variety of transportation options and a variety of housing types are mixed together. I believe block scale grids can exist even in these areas.

Massive Fragility versus Human Scale Resilience

Our current power system is set up to provide a tremendous amount of base load power and satisfy tremendous short term demands. The utilities who supply this system with power are adding capacity to this system in the form of new power plants. In Georgia, the main electric utility continues to pursue the expansion of the Votgle nuclear power plant in spite of tremendous cost overruns and delays. These systems which depend on single sources of power are inherently fragile and and threatened by natural and man-made disasters.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The technologies exist to provide abundant power directly to homes and neighborhoods at a scale appropriate for cities. These systems can help utilities reduce their peak power demands, reduce the environmental impact of electricity production, and make cities more resilient to natural disasters. The real question is how do we achieve these goals.