TEPIC, Mexico, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The
growth in electricity micro-grids in the U.S. city of
Pittsburgh, at the expense of its ageing traditional power
network, may be winning support but it risks increasing energy
inequality, city experts warned.
With the advent of cheaper options for energy storage, the
Pennsylvania city of around 300,000 has implemented a plan for a
“grid of micro-grids” as part of its long-term energy strategy,
which could eventually see its existing power network broken up
into a series of smaller, decentralised units.
“We are witnessing perhaps the twilight of the macro-grid,
and perhaps the dawn of the micro-grid,” Gregory Unruh,
associate professor at George Mason University, told a
discussion organised by the Harvard Business Review.
“Upgrading that (macro-grid) is going to require huge
investments, and it’s a real limitation perhaps to economic
growth,” he said. Meanwhile, the reliability of the system is
decaying and it is becoming more susceptible to environmental
and weather shifts, he added.
But as more affluent urban communities increase their use of
renewable energy and smart micro-grids, Benjamin Morris from
Pittsburgh's Duquesne Light Co. highlighted the risk of a “death
spiral” that could leave those who cannot afford their own
systems paying more for grid electricity.
“Those customers who are able to afford distributed
generation are now paying for a smaller portion of the
electrical grid, which means the customers who cannot afford to
install their own distributed generation are paying for a larger
share of the electrical grid,” said Morris, senior manager at
the power company.
With fewer people using the grid, those who remain dependent
on it could be left to pay the price of upgrading and
maintaining the mammoth system, speakers said on Tuesday in
Pittsburgh, a member of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100
Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative.
Producing local electricity is a key focus for the city as
it struggles with outdated infrastructure, said Pittsburgh Mayor
The shift to clean energy and factors such as the
introduction of electric buses will improve air quality in the
city, which also feels the effects of pollution from Ohio to its
west, he added.
While tax incentives might have been used in the past to
lure companies to cities like Pittsburgh, these days businesses
are looking at a broader picture, and the prospect of keeping
costs down thanks to cheaper energy also plays a part, the panel
“Now companies are looking at a more holistic approach,”
said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, citing issues
such as how to attract talent and build a sustainable workplace.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.