Microgrids not just for solving climate change anymore

During his recent trip to Africa, President Obama announced the “Power Africa” initiative, a program that would finance the increase of access to electricity in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

It centers on the immense business opportunity surrounding something called a microgrid, islands of power and self-sufficiency that are the current rage among technologists peering into their crystal balls. These microgrids scare the hell out of most utilities, since if they are widely successful, could spell their doom. Yet they also represent a bottoms-up approach to solving not only what the United Nations  calls "energy poverty," but the looming catastrophe of runaway global climate change.

Often, the analogy is made that just like the developing world  skipped telephone landlines to cellphones, the same is happening with electricity. Africa and other less-developed nations will go directly to microgrids, without the need for large nuclear reactors or coal plants connected to giant transmission lines.

Interestingly, the use of microgrids is also discussed widely in North America and Europe as a way to cope with aging infrastructure, extreme weather, and climate change. With the prices of renewable energy sources dropping, microgrids are becoming more and more popular for both commercial and residential applications. They could be a way for the current aging power grid to transition to a new grid system powered by renewable energy.

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