Here Come The "Locavolts!"
The “locavore” movement is big, especially in California. With the bounty of food found locally in the Bay Area, living off the land – and sea – is not only possible, but a delicious exercise.
Less obvious is a brewing “locavolt” revolution that is challenging our status quo approach to providing power. In response to high gasoline and natural gas prices, global climate change, and the terrorist threat, people are looking to generate power right in their own homes and neighborhoods. California is again in the lead, pushing towards greater energy independence.
Technology advances in computers, telecommunications, electricity generators, conversion devices such as inverters and cars are all giving these locavolts new tools to get the job done. Within the next few years, plug-in hybrid cars will be able to serve as a mini-power generator for your home and store renewable energy from your solar photovoltaics (PV) system or your small wind turbine. Plug-in hybrids may also help balance out a smarter electricity grid capable of easily sending power back and forth between generators and consumers, much like we send and receive e-mails on the Internet today.
A top priority for locavolts is to secure reliable supplies in times of emergency. In California, the most advanced “micro-grid” – a self-contained island of electric power -- is at University of California-San Diego, where power can be cut by 2/3rds during times of energy shortages, and then transmitted to others for consumption. Whenever possible, locavolts also tap local, indigenous renewable resources. In Minnesota and Iowa, the preference is for “community wind” projects owned exclusively by local farmers, schools and neighbors. The easiest, but most expensive, route to go in California and elsewhere is to tap the power of the sun.
Solar PV is the poster child of the locavolt movement. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the technology was even more expensive, yet still cheaper than connecting to the grid at remote sites. Then, in the 1990s, solar PV costs decreased while state incentives for home and business installations increased. These locavolts cooperated with the local utility, using its grid acting as the backup supply when the sun is not shining. The downside to this current arrangement is that when the utility grid goes down, so does the solar PV array and modern life as we know it.
Living out on the edge of Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) grid in Point Reyes Station – which literally sits on the San Andreas fault line in Marin County -- Jerry Lunsford, has worried about the next power outage, which can last for days on end. In response, he installed the nation’s first “Solar Safety Net” this past spring, and is now the new locavolt hero.
This “Solar Safety Net” features a novel battery back-up system that allows this disaster relief site to provide basic services – lights, telecommunications and refrigeration -- when the grid goes down. “Self reliance should be the goal here,” said Lunsford. “Being responsible for our own electrical generation is a large part of the puzzle when it comes to global climate change.”
Stubbs Winery brings the concepts of “locavolt” and “locavore” together in one place. Located near Petaluma, Mary and Tom Stubbs grow organic grapes to make premium wine. They live off-grid, completely powered by wind and sun, consuming only 5 to 10 percent of the amount of energy of you or me. “I like the independent aspect of not being beholden to anybody,” acknowledged Tom Stubbs. He noted being a locavolt isn’t always fun. “Our best time for wind power production is spring, but our energy supplies are at their lowest in winter,” he said. “I become a bit of a tyrant with our children, following behind them turning off lights.”
The technology is now available to secure up to 40 percent of our electricity from local, distributed renewable energy sources like wind and sun. It will take time for the locavolts to overcome the powers that be, but something tells me they are on to something big.