For those of us who have been arguing into the wind for years about the urgent need to abandon our total reliance on the electric grid in favor of distributed energy — making it where you use it — it’s a sight for sore eyes. An enormous government program is building tens of thousands of direct-current microgrids to power homes and businesses and towns all over the country, providing people with electricity that is far less expensive and more reliable than is provided by the grid.
The program began field testing its microgrids just three years ago. For a single household it consisted of a solar array, a basic battery, and a 12-volt wiring harness. By staying in 12 volt, the microgrid avoids the expense and inefficiencies of inverting the power to 120-volt, and makes use of the increasing availability of 12-volt lights, motors, computers, TVs and appliances. By the end of of this year, 100,000 microgrids will be up and running, with no slowdown in sight.
Another triumph of American ingenuity? Hardly. You can have America’s grid when you pry it from our cold, dead hands. This is a triumph of Indian innovation.
With its one and a quarter billion people — four times the population of the United States — India is the second largest country in the world. Since achieving independence from Britain in 1947, the massive and long-subjugated country has moved with surprising speed toward a position of world leadership; it is, for example, one of the few countries in the world to possess nuclear weapons.
But progress has been uneven. Poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, and plain vanilla incompetence lay across the country’s many accomplishments like a toxic fog. This is especially true when it comes to energy: one fifth of the population has no access to electricity at all; half of those who are connected to the grid find it so unreliable and expensive they may as well not have it at all
For years India has been pouring money into bigger generating plants, bigger and longer transmission lines, and myriad electrification projects. Yet of its 29 provinces, only four can boast that all of their households have electricity. The only meaningful gains have been made by the recently inaugurated microgrid program initiated by the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras.
Now, tens of thousands of homes are making enough power — reliably and cheaply — to power their lights, computers, phones, televisions, fans and certain other appliances. Whether the microgrid is alone or working in tandem with the grid, it allows people for the first time to count on being able to read at night, cool themselves with fans, communicate, and watch entire TV shows uninterrupted.
That might not seem like much to you and me, and we may not see the point at first of doing microgrids here. That’s because you and I think of the grid as sturdy and reliable, and most of us consider investing in backup power only if it lowers our electric bills. But the grid is not sturdy and reliable, it is elderly, leaky, outdated and infirm [See “Rage Against the Dying of the Lights,” The Daily Impact December 5, 2014], and one day soon it is going to fail us entirely.
On that day we are going to regret deeply all that time and money we spent grafting wind “farms” and solar “farms” and nuclear plants and coal plants and natural gas plants onto our rusting forest of sticks and strings. There is nothing sustainable, or renewable, or common sensible about gathering a gazillion watts of “renewable” energy in the middle of a desert or on a remote mountaintop and them having to ram it through an aged, leaky, decrepit grid to its eventual destination. We will also deeply regret, for example, saving a few bucks by installing solar panels with built-in inverters to 120 volt — inverters that must be connected to the live grid for the solar panel to work.
We will regret letting the industry convince us that the only way to make energy is to burn fossil fuels in huge plants, the only way to distribute it is through strings strung on sticks (wait, hook it to the Internet and call it a “smart” grid), that high costs and frequent outages and increasing vulnerability are just the way it is. We may even, if we have the time while trying to survive, take a moment to regret that Thomas Edison lost his argument with Nikola Tesla, and Edison’s vision of an America of neighborhoods served by small DC generators never came to be.
Until now. In India.