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Producing local electricity is a key focus for the city as it struggles with outdated infrastructure, said Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.
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 heard.
“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. Visit news.trust.org/climate)