Microgrid: The Word Utility Companies Don't Want to Hear

The prefix "micro" in no way fits the current utility-driven electric industry. The companies that supply power are big; the plants that make power are big; and the grid -- that collection of transmission wires that crosshatches the nation -- is massive.

That's why I found Fast Company's recent article on the "microgrid" so interesting. Distributed power (the microgrid) is the antithesis of the behemoth utility company. While it might take years for a utility to build renewable energy power plants and connect them to the grid through miles-long, high-voltage connections, it's relatively easy (if somewhat expensive) for individuals to outfit their homes with solar panels or small wind turbines.

Produce enough power, and you can start selling the extra juice back to the very same power plant that used to supply you. Running the meter backward is called "net metering," and it's of obvious concern to utilities that would rather send out bills than checks.

Consequently, some utilities throw up barriers -- like extra fees -- to prevent an easy switch to a microgrid. Others offer incentives that are too good to refuse. (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power gave out 5 percent discounts on traditional power to its top 30 users in order to keep them from installing solar power or generating electricity on site.) The nonprofit Network for New Energy Choices gave 28 out of the 42 states allowing net metering Ds or Fs because of the near-impossible restrictions put on would-be participants.

But the article suggests this strong-arming will only last so long. What do you think? Will power eventually go the way of telephone service and become a consumer-driven market?

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