Use smart microgrids to power communities with locally produced renewable energy—increasing self-sufficiency and reducing emissions at the same time.
A smart microgrid is like a mini version of the main power grid, with three key differences. First, microgrids are hyperlocal, connecting a small network of nearby electricity users. Second, they’re independent from the central grid, which means they can provide backup power during an outage (or serve remote communities that aren’t able to connect to the main grid). And third, they’re intelligent—integrating machine learning and increasingly affordable renewable energy sources to maximize efficient power use. With 800 million people living without electricity worldwide and many more facing energy insecurity due to climate change, smart microgrids are a powerful technology to revolutionize the way we produce, consume, and share clean energy.
Learn more about microgrids. A smart microgrid is an assembly of storage batteries, distribution lines, and power sources like wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar—a simple concept with major implications for the future of clean energy. Here’s what sets smart microgrids apart as a climate solution and a tool for community resilience:
- Local power is more efficient and accessible. Microgrids generate power close to the people they serve, unlike less efficient central grids that push power over long distances (with up to 15 percent of the electricity dissipating in transit). This means efficiency goes up and energy costs go down—especially when the microgrid uses renewables. In Lebanon, most people pay two electricity bills: one to an unreliable state utility and the other to power expensive diesel backup generators. The farther from Beirut that residents live, the less reliable the central grid electricity—and the higher the generator bill. Solar microgrids have been identified as a game changer for Lebanon: delivering affordable, reliable electricity regardless of location.
- Independent energy sources change lives—and save them. While microgrids can connect to a central grid, they can also operate independently in “island mode” to serve remote communities or to keep power on during outages. In Senegal, that independent functionality has meant solar microgrids can introduce electricity to a thousand remote villages for the first time. In New Orleans, this apartment building's rooftop solar microgrid kept ACs running when massive power outages and a deadly heat wave coincided during Hurricane Ida in 2021.
- Smart electricity is stable and shareable. Microgrid controllers are the brain of the system, intelligently managing power sources, storage batteries, and nearby building energy systems to make the most of the power they generate. Smart microgrids can maximize efficiency with software that integrates weather forecasting, projected electricity demand, and smart electrical meters like the ones used by SOLshare in Dhaka, which allow households to share solar energy (even with those who don’t yet have their own solar panels) through a process called swarm electrification.
- Solar panels aren’t the same as solar microgrids. During the massive power outages brought on by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many homeowners who had previously installed rooftop solar panels were upset to learn their solar energy couldn’t be used during a central grid outage. What they were missing is what sets microgrids apart: batteries to store the energy solar panels produce, and the ability to go into island mode when the main grid goes down.
- Microgrids help address injustice. Because smart microgrids decentralize power, they are an effective tool for promoting energy justice—positioning historically underserved communities that are on the front lines of climate change to build resilience, save money, and take greater ownership of their energy resources. The Adjuntas Pueblo Solar initiative in Puerto Rico leads by example. Small businesses in the town’s central plaza are powered by one thousand interconnected solar panels that the businesses themselves own—allowing them to save on electricity costs and build self-sufficiency outside Puerto Rico’s colonial governing structure.
Bring a microgrid to your community. Microgrids can support a wide range of community needs—from backup power for emergency services to daily electricity for affordable housing. Start here to learn what it might take to establish a microgrid where you live and work.
- First, find out where your energy comes from. Are you connected to a central grid? If so, how is that grid powered? This guide outlines ways to find out, starting with asking your utility provider.
- Look into microgrid projects that are already underway in your area through clean energy reporting outlets like Renewable Energy World, Recharge, Smart Energy International, and Microgrid Knowledge. If there’s already a project in motion, contact them to find out how you can get involved.
- Talk with your neighbors about starting a community microgrid. If there’s interest and need, search for or start a citizens’ task force in your area (like this one). Reference this guide for a closer look at how community microgrids work and how your task force can take action.
- Identify experts and leaders who can help get your project off the ground. Microgrid technology is complex and requires not only community cooperation, but also support from technology specialists and local governance. Consult this guide to identify your stakeholders, this guide for tips on effectively engaging policymakers, and see the Key Players section below to find tech companies and organizations equipped to support microgrid projects.
- If your community lacks reliable access to electricity, get a crash course in organizing for energy justice through this eight-module toolkit from the NAACP, which covers launching legislative campaigns, engaging utility companies, and starting community-owned energy projects, and more.
Help fund a microgrid in another community. Neighborhoods, villages, and organizations worldwide are already taking action to build microgrids. Supporting their work is one of the simplest ways to be a part of advancing community-based clean energy.
- Join a microgrid crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo or GoFundMe, and spread the word to your network. Prioritize projects that are locally led and clearly centered around community needs, and skip any that appear to be led by outside organizations that impede the sovereignty of local people or push their own development models.
- Donate to an organization focused on bringing microgrids to communities that can benefit most, such as the Footprint Project, which delivers mobile microgrids to disaster survivors. See the Key Players section for more organizations to support.
Mayors and City Officials
Create the conditions for microgrid adoption. Microgrids can help cities clean up their power supply more quickly than cities can overhaul the central grid, while increasing resilience to natural disasters and allowing residents to save on their monthly electrical bills. Local officials can take the lead by implementing supportive policies, providing financial and technical resources, and participating in development projects to accelerate clean energy uptake through microgrids.
- This guide is a great place to start for an overview of how microgrids function in cities, the benefits they can provide, and what key roles and financial resources are needed for your project.
- This article breaks down how microgrids can be an essential component of preparing cities for climate-related disasters—a potentially helpful resource for bringing fellow officials on board.
- This report from the Netherlands found that microgrid technologies could make a local “techno-economy” 90 percent self-sufficient through decentralized sharing of energy at the local level between multiple households.
- See the Governance section for more on policies, programs, and centering community ownership and equity in microgrid implementation.
Electrify food production with microgrids. Switching to a microgrid powered by renewables can increase farms’ efficiency, provide more reliable electricity to prevent food waste during outages, and reduce production-related emissions. A wide range of farm operations can benefit from microgrids:
- In Nigeria, where roughly 40 percent of the total population lack access to reliable electricity, farmers currently use diesel generators for essential activities like milling grains, refrigeration, and pumping water for irrigation. Unfortunately, fuel costs can exceed annual incomes. This study found that solar-hybrid microgrids are a viable alternative that would be more cost effective, reliable, and clean. The report goes on to detail funding support needs, which will be critical for initial microgrid buildout. See Donors and Investors below for more.
- A vertical farm in Pittsburgh is managing the energy-intensive operations of their 60,000-square-foot indoor growing facility with a smart microgrid—helping them reach their goal of producing 500,000 pounds of lettuce, spinach, kale, arugula, and herbs a year. Their use of an energy-as-a-service financing model has allowed them to integrate microgrid power without upfront costs.
- In rural parts of Palestine’s West Bank, farmers are experimenting with solar microgrids to stabilize water availability, improve agricultural productivity, and increase food security.
Donors and Investors
Help de-risk investment in microgrids. While smart microgrids provide more affordable energy over time, the cost of the initial build-out is prohibitive for many. Microgrid investments are also considered high risk due to the lack of long-term track records, barriers in assessing community energy demand, and the widely varying needs of each community and project. Major donors are stepping in to provide up-front costs that help de-risk investment—accelerating adoption of microgrids to prove out their effectiveness to future funders.
- The Ikea and Rockefeller foundations pledged $1 billion to seed distributed clean energy (such as microgrids) in developing nations and de-risk investment of an additional $10 billion from international development organizations—a first step in encouraging a boom in private investment.
- The Rockefeller Foundation is also supporting Tata Power in delivering clean, reliable, affordable power to ten thousand villages across India through microgrids, directly impacting the lives of 25 million people over the next decade.
- This guide from Race Forward can help further inform investments through a regenerative lens. It covers connecting with funders who are already successfully advancing justice through their grantmaking, addressing racial biases while moving quickly to respond to moments of crisis, and creating transparency around where dollars are going through data collection.
Report on challenges and solutions for microgrid adoption. Journalists and media outlets can report on barriers to adoption, elevate solutions to remove them, and amplify success stories that show communities what’s possible (and how to achieve it).
- The Lens reported that power utility Entergy paid actors to speak in favor of a new gas-fueled backup power plant at a New Orleans public hearing, despite actual community members advocating for a renewably powered microgrid. This reporting led to a $5 million fine for Entergy and new public hearing regulations to prevent such violations in the future.
- While undertaking a solar microgrid project, the city of Berkeley, California, discovered multiple state-level laws designed to protect utilities from competition—including a “cost of ownership” charge from investor-owned utility companies that exceeded the cost of building the microgrid itself. Microgrid Knowledge reported on this finding and elevated policy solutions to remove such roadblocks.
- Look to Canary Media, Microgrid Knowledge, and Recharge for great examples of ongoing reporting on microgrid challenges and solutions.
Lead microgrid development and innovation. Utility companies around the world are helming projects that not only build smart microgrids, but push the boundaries of what these energy systems can achieve.
- In Rutland, Vermont, Green Mountain Power has transformed a former landfill site into a solar microgrid that helps power the city, provides backup electricity for their emergency shelter, and generates around $350,000 to $700,000 annually from its energy storage capabilities.
- The Provincial Electricity Authority in Thailand took the lead on a pilot project that brought a solar and hydro-powered microgrid to serve the energy needs of around fifty thousand people in the mountainous Mae Hong Son Province, keeping the lights on through frequent central grid outages caused by flooding and landslides.
Collaborate with communities to develop the solutions they actually need. Historically underserved neighborhoods stand to gain exceptional benefits from renewable energy upgrades, but are too often excluded from them.
- Northern Illinois power company ComEd is seeking to turn this trend around through the Bronzeville Microgrid pilot program, which works closely with residents of the Chicago neighborhood to understand how a microgrid can best serve them. Together they’ve cocreated solutions that reflect the community, from wind-powered streetlights that keep kids safe on their walk home, to a mural featuring Black luminaries painted on the walls of the microgrid battery storage facility.
- This study focused on rural Bangladesh found that access to energy is gendered, particularly in developing countries. Because men disproportionately hold decision-making over energy use—from the household to local governance—women’s voices and needs are not heard. The study concluded that while smart microgrids are a powerful way to bring electricity and opportunity to remote communities, implementation must include women as decision-makers.
- The Marcus Garvey Village affordable apartment complex in Brooklyn taps its microgrid to stay cool on hot days, easing stress on the central grid as New Yorkers crank up their air-conditioning all at once. This is good news for utility Consolidated Edison—it helps keep their systems from overloading and causing a blackout. ConEd has agreed to pay Marcus Garvey Village in exchange for lightening their load at these key moments, which goes on to fund community programming for its residents.
Electric Vehicle Makers
Manufacture EVs with two-way charging capabilities. Emerging EV models like the Ford F-150 Lightning offer bidirectional charging, meaning they can be tapped as a backup power source during central grid outages. This functionality positions EVs as mobile microgrids. The more vehicles with this capability, the more households will have a climate-resilient power source that provides backup electricity during outages, reduces demand when the central grid is stressed, and can even feed power back into the central grid in times of need.
Recycle batteries into solar storage grids. Batteries typically get swapped out of EVs when they reach about 80 percent of their original capacity—but that doesn’t have to be the end of the road. Batteries are crossing borders to find a second life as storage systems for renewable energy. For example, an electric bus battery from China is now helping supply solar power via microgrid to a school in Western Zambia.
Help make smart microgrids smarter. From developing resource allocation algorithms to real-time pricing tools, tech companies are helping to make microgrids more efficient and more affordable. Join the International Microgrid Association to collaborate with key players across sectors, and check out how these tech companies are leading the way:
- PXiSE in Australia focuses on developing grid controls for highly distributed and renewable power. In the small town of Onslow on the coast of Western Australia, PXiSE partnered with Horizon Power to provide electricity for an entire town, without generators—using a microgrid built solely on solar and batteries. This initial experiment indicates much bigger possibilities for smart microgrids to support widespread proliferation of clean energy resources without waiting for the central grid to catch up.
- EcoStruxure cloud-based software is helping an Illinois-based microgrid earn distinction as one of the most technologically advanced utility-scale microgrids in North America. The software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform allows facility managers to maximize efficiency through capabilities such as automatically optimizing solar panels and wind turbine operation using predictive algorithms.
Use a microgrid to power operations. Any company can benefit from the long-term cost savings and energy security of a microgrid—particularly those with large offices or campuses. Microgrids can also help companies remove their reliance on fossil-fuel grids or diesel generators.
- A microgrid is helping humanitarian organization Direct Relief prepare their facilities for natural disasters so they can continue to provide emergency aid, even when the central grid goes down.
- Microgrids aren’t just for emergency services—they’re showing up from tech company campuses to grocery stores.
- This guide can help determine whether a microgrid is right for your business, including the pros and cons of different energy solutions, benefits and use cases of microgrids, and financial considerations.
- If you determine a microgrid is right for you, this guide can help you get started, from planning and evaluation tools to security considerations.
Reduce regulatory barriers to microgrid adoption. In many parts of the world, microgrids face policies that bar them from delivering their full potential. Here are a few ways to remove those barriers:
- Make microgrids more financially viable by implementing feed-in-tariffs (FIT) with market-responsive pricing, as the City of San Diego has done with support from Clean Coalition.
- If your area doesn’t already, allow bidirectional power flow and local power trading between distributed energy resources and the central grid, as this proposed bill in Canada seeks to do.
- Facilitate maximizing microgrids beyond current net energy metering (NEM) limits (which artificially limit the size of microgrids). NEM is a utility rate program that requires electric companies to purchase the excess solar energy their customers’ solar panels produce at the full retail rate of electricity. Utility companies often limit the amount of energy connected sources like solar panels can produce due to concerns over grid stability, but emerging AI technology can alleviate these concerns so that companies can lift these limits.
Invest in microgrids as a lever for progress across justice issues. Governments seeking to advance social, economic, and environmental well-being can consider focusing first on microgrids to drive progress across issues of poverty, gender, and environmental justice. A few success stories:
- Microgrids can set off a ripple effect that enables other climate solutions and social good, from accelerating EV adoption in Rwanda to addressing energy poverty in developing countries.
- The long-term impact is particularly compelling: five years after microgrids were installed in Kenya’s Sidonge village, residents reported a 180 percent increase in school attendance by girls, along with a boosted local economy thanks to the creation of fourteen small businesses, including a hair salon and community video hall.
Design programs and policies around the principles of energy democracy. The local, independent nature of microgrids make them an important tool for advancing energy democracy, a growing social movement that advocates for greater community ownership of energy resources. Here’s how government leaders can center this ethos in policies and programs:
- Learn about legacy energy exploitation of Indigenous people and other marginalized groups. An energy democracy approach will prioritize resolving issues in these communities.
- Consult with experts in the energy democracy space who can advise on your unique context. For example, Initiative for Environmental Justice in the United States offers workshops, training, and convenings tailored to policy makers.
- Reference this policy framework built around energy democracy principles, such as establishing a “Community Renewables First” standard that ensures at least 25 percent of clean-energy generation is community governed, and that local communities are involved in a collaborative planning process.
- Review this guide to find comprehensive building blocks for a regenerative and just policy transition to renewable energy, including recommendations for a distributed energy-generation approach that leads to diverse, local renewable energy and ownership.
Adjuntas Pueblo (Puerto Rico)
Shakimali Matborkandi (Bangladesh)
Marcus Garvey Village (Brooklyn, NY)
Dir Ammar and Al-Birin (Palestine)
International Microgrid Association (Australia/global)
International Solar Alliance (India/global)
Energy Democracy Project (U.S.)
PowerGen (Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria)
DER Task Force (U.S.)
Alaska Center for Microgrid Technologies Commercialization (Fairbanks, AL)
Clean Coalition (Santa Barbara, CA)
Microgrid Hardware and Software Providers
PowerSecure (Wake Forest, NC)
Veritone (Denver, CO)
Planet Ark Power (Australia)
PXiSE Energy Solutions (San Diego, CA)
Scale Microgrid Solutions (Ridgewood, NJ)
“Connecting Bronzeville in Chicago to a Smart Microgrid" (Michelle Blaise, TEDxChicago)
Community Microgrids for a Sustainable Future) Avnaesh Jayantilal, TEDxEastsidePrep)
This Is What Energy Democracy Looks Like (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung)
Decolonizing Power podcast
On Resilient Microgrids and the Courage to Implement (Power Flow podcast)
Are Microgrids the Future of Reliable, Clean Energy? (The Freeing Energy podcast)
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