Right now, your neighborhood gets that voltage and frequency signal from the larger grid as a whole. If you’re suddenly cut off from the signal, your neighborhood will cease to have a working electric system — even if there are sources of generation right there down the block.
In an emergency situation, we do suddenly have lots of hyper-local generation sources — those 12 million backup generators. What we don’t have is the infrastructure in place to take advantage of that. A backup generator can power a building, but, in general, it can’t share resources with the building next door.
A microgrid would change that, enabling areas the size of neighborhoods to operate independently in the event of an emergency. “Your backup generators are tied together and then you can redirect power from where it’s available … say at a bank … to a hospital, or a fire station, or someplace more critical,” Zimmerle said.
Doing that means updating technology, but it also means changing the way we think about legal and regulatory frameworks. In particular, Zimmerle pointed to power purchase agreements — contracts between the people who get electricity to your house and the people who generate it. In some places, those two jobs are done by the same people. But where they aren’t, power purchase agreements usually limit the amount of electricity that can be generated locally.