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Community Microgrids – A Tool for Adaptation or Mitigation?

Hospital connected to community microgrid

This explainer is the third part of a series by Sara Harari and Nate Grady on how microgrids are being used to transform the electrical grid. 

As climate change becomes the new reality, policymakers must decide how to invest limited resources in advanced technology and infrastructure. At the heart of this challenge is the debate over adaptation versus mitigation: should we focus our efforts on avoiding the worst effects of climate change (i.e. reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses we release going forward), or should we divide our resources and invest simultaneously on adapting to the most likely effects of climate change?

Historically, most international efforts have focused on mitigation; if we can quickly revamp our economies to operate without emitting CO2, then further adaptation won't be required. However, if the rate of emissions reduction is insufficient, we will be left unprepared for increasingly severe climate impacts. Investing exclusively in mitigation efforts is to put faith in the widespread adoption of powerful emissions reductions policies and protocols.

Yet much of the world is already feeling the impacts of climate change. Governments worldwide have begun to invest in adaptation towards climate-resilient systems and infrastructure in parallel with carbon-reducing solutions.

These divergent approaches are on display today in Norway and New York State, where policymakers in each region have identified community microgrids as a climate change solution, but have done so for distinctly different reasons.

In Norway, microgrids are viewed as a way to enable greater penetration of clean energy technologies, such as solar, and thereby increase investment in these mitigating solutions. In New York, community microgrids were prioritized following Superstorm Sandy to improve the local resilience of individual communities in the face of more frequent and extreme storms. In addition to their primary resilience benefits, microgrids in New York are also being advanced to reduce grid congestion, leveraging new types of generation for system-wide benefits. These divergent motivations shape the design and ultimate use of the microgrids and therefore provide an interesting case study on the evolution of microgrid deployment.