Urban Design

Electrify Everything by Microgrids: A Case for Energy Transition in Cities

The picture below is a view from my apartment in China, where I lived from 2017 to 2020. Electrify Everything is the title of one of dozens of solutions proposed in the book Re Generation: Ending the climate crisis in one generation (2021) The main argument of this solution is that our energy infrastructure must change completely in the form of the total electrification of the energy grid, and elimination of every form of fossil fuel combustion. According to Saul Griffith, if we electrify the whole of the world economy (cars, heat pumps, smart thermostats, green hydrogen, for instance), we will need less than half of the primary energy we currently use. ‘Do not build anything new that connects to a flame’ (see Project Regeneration).

I consider that when we talk about sustainability in the construction industry, we must ask ourselves: where does the electricity of buildings come from? This is crucial because the sources where the energy is transformed (gas, coal, wind, ocean, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric) into electricity define in a huge percentage the ecological footprint of a building, big or small. If we look carefully at any context, any city, any region in the world, we will probably encounter a massive network of high-voltage transmission lines that cross the country and reach transformers and generators. Eventually, electricity flows into the regional electrical networks of control centers that monitor the supply-demand of electricity at homes and the workplace 24 hours a day, the 7 days a week.

However, up to date several Latin American countries are unable to connect more than 15% of their population to a reliable electricity grid, particularly in their homes and in rural contexts. In Nigeria, 85 million people don’t have access to grid electricity, which is 43% percent of the country’s population. The lack of reliable power is a significant constraint for citizens and businesses, resulting on annual economic losses estimated at $26.2 billion which is equivalent to about 2 percent of GDP. Nigeria ranks 171 out of 190 countries in getting electricity and electricity access is seen as one of the major constraints for the private sector.

Shanghai suburbs, 2019

Civilization nowadays depends on electricity, yet more than 1.1 billion people lack access to a centralized power grid, and population growth is outpacing electrification. If we want to electrify everything, everywhere, with renewable sources of energy, we are in front of a gigantic task. Where to start?

Microgrids are a descentralized, localized grouping of distributed energy sources (solar, wind, in-stream hydro, biomass, for instance) working together with energy storage, batteries or backup generation and load management tools. When coal is burned to boil water to turn a turbine and then to generate electricity, 2/3 of the energy is dispersed as waste heat and in-line losses (See Drawdown). In contrast, Microgrids can help bridge the gap between electricity supply and demand while making use of locally available energy resources. See the example of SolShare in Bangladesh.

With Microgrids, an optimal combination of centralized and decentralized systems can capture both the strength of the central grid and the agility of decentralized infrastructure. Deployment of microgrids is already profitable in many parts of the rural world, which historically have depended on imported diesel for electricity. It also offers additional benefits, such as improved health due to reduced kerosene consumption. See the examples of Solar Settlement in Freiburg, Germany and the Kahauiki Village in Hawaii.

The cases of Bangladesh, Germany and Hawaii are evidences of projects that have achieved optimized energy consumption through better matching of supply with demand. This increases energy security for thousands of people that need it through integration of renewable energy sources.

Electricity for everything coming from renewable energy. That is a big task. We need to start now.

Solar Settlement. Picture retrieved from https://sdg21.eu/en/db/solar-settlement-am-schlierberg

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