Are microgrids the answer to helping rural areas be more sustainable?

May 10th, 2021 | By Morgen Harvey

All across the United States, renewable energy is becoming more and more popular but continues to be difficult to access in rural areas due to a lack of resources and high initial costs. Rural areas seem like the perfect audience for energy renewables, but with the lack of accessibility for people living in these locations there needs to be a more focused and supported approach. This lack of access to power is not new.

Powering rural communities: a primer

Rural areas have historically struggled to gain access to power. They aren’t connected to the main power grids which makes infrastructure expansion very expensive. They are typically less prosperous and populous leading to a lower demand from power companies. With the high cost of expansion and a lower demand, power companies have required more incentives to invest in these areas.

In 1936, Congress even passed the Rural Electrification Act as a part of the New Deal to incentivize companies and communities to invest in power and expand accessibility. By providing funding through community-powered cooperatives, many of which still exist today, the REA helped rural Americans access contemporary power in their communities and homes.

Over the years, the Rural Electrification Act became a permanent fixture of U.S. law, and was later amended and expanded to include provisions and funding for rural telephone services (1949) and rural internet and broadband access (2008).

Even with the continued support of the REA in other areas, it hasn’t received the same amount of attention when it comes to renewable energy sources.

Challenges for rural to go renewable

Renewable energy seems like an obvious choice for rural electrification — one that has fewer geographic constraints and challenges when compared to its conventional counterparts. Unlike coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear energy sources that require specific sites and finite resources to generate energy, renewable sources like wind and solar are much more flexible in terms of both large power plant build-outs and individual generation. Renewable energy options are cleaner for the environment and healthier for residents who live nearby.

But despite the benefits, renewables do face adoption challenges due to cost. Much like with the REA, many large-scale utilities and power companies are hesitant to make long-term investments to go renewable. Not only that, but new renewable developments regularly face resistance and skepticism from some residents based on anything from cost to appearance to corporate or community control over the energy.

This leaves much of the work of expanding renewables in rural communities up to private companies and individuals. One of the most promising and most effective options for renewable energy comes in the form of microgrids.

Microgrids offer opportunity

True to their name, microgrids are best understood as small-yet-efficient power grids for local areas. Microgrids are built to be autonomous, with the ability to generate, store and distribute energy separate from or as a supplement to a conventional power grid. Microgrids running off renewable sources often rely on batteries and backup systems to store captured energy and help distribute to energy customers throughout a given region. An island community in Maine, for example, is currently investing in its own microgrid as a solution for its aging infrastructure and high utility costs.

With the many benefits and opportunities these new types of power solutions present, many microgrid and renewable energy developers are working to create more durable, resilient and accessible designs that are easy to use and implement within rural areas across the U.S. One such developer is BoxPower. BoxPower’s microgrid design leverages shipping containers for microgrid infrastructure and battery storage and has proven to be highly resilient to adverse weather conditions. When establishing a new microgrid, BoxPower also makes it a point to train local communities on the operation of their new microgrid and help communities become more self-sufficient.

In addition to helping power cleaner, more reliable energy for communities, microgrids can be essential investments against natural disasters. Built to withstand major storms, microgrid systems can be reliable in any rural area, whether it’s a desert or rainforest, open plains or mountainous area. BoxPower’s microgrids, for example, have been used for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and recently partnered with California’s largest consumer-owned utility company to help with wildfire risk mitigation.

A real path forward for rural renewables

With more developers, innovators and researchers looking to expand microgrids and renewable energy, the future looks bright for rural communities seeking to be more sustainable and self-sufficient. For communities looking to explore renewable energy microgrids in their area, the Microgrid Resources Coalition and Department of Energy offer research and resources to further educate on microgrid investments.

Tagged: Renewable energy, microgrids, electricity, energy, renewables, fossil fuels, solar power, wind power, microgrid, clean energy

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