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The Role Your Car Plays in Democratizing the Energy Grid

Decentralized power systems could have huge impacts on vehicles in the near future—and not just in terms of how we’ll charge our cars.

In Brooklyn, New York, locally-made goods are valued commodities. Community businesses are so beloved that they can be awarded a special certification if all their products are made in the neighborhood. So it’s no wonder that Brooklyn has become the seat for the flagship operation of LO3 Energy, an energy technology company that has built and tested community microgrids in the western neighborhood of Gowanus. Community microgrids are small and decentralized energy sources operated by individuals, rather than large companies, which offer consumers an alternative to their regional power conglomerates—small batch, artisan power, as it were.

Public interest in community microgrids is picking up nationwide, and there are at least 800 people ready to sign on with LO3 Energy once their grids are fully functional, according to Lawrence Orsini, the company’s founder and CEO. Though the rush of interest in this sector is recent, Orsini estimates that the technology has existed for about 15 years. He attributes the recent surge in demand to the “era of personal choice,” as he calls it, wherein people want more choices over what they buy, sell, and use.

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Microgrids give them that choice, at least when it comes to energy. The smaller, democratized grids allow people to produce energy on their own property, then redistribute any excess back into the larger grid, or sometimes sell it directly to people that they know. On the buying side, this setup lets people purchase their energy from sources that they’re familiar with, something that is nearly impossible to do when relying on a large-scale energy grid, Orisini says.

“Even though there are renewable electrons here on the grid, I can’t buy it from [the people I want to,] because of the way that the markets are structured and the way the rules are structured,” Orsini says.

But when microgrids reformat the way people get their energy—by decentralizing energy, for one, and allowing it to be produced in pockets rather than on one large power plant—people will be able to know for sure where their power is coming from. And oftentimes, it’ll come from their neighbors.

After microgrids shake up the way people get energy, they may also change the way the energy itself is distributed. Since power in these microgrids is decentralized, they’re conducive to distribution methods that ensure power is spread evenly throughout participating areas. Orsini envisions a future wherein vehicles themselves could shuttle power from location to another, for instance. He presents this scenario: When public buses convert to electric power, New York City will have to devise charging solutions that are more efficient and intuitive than stop-and-go stations—something like a wireless charging port at a bus stop, which would allow vehicles to regain energy as they stop to pick up passengers.

Taking that a step further, Orsini imagines that the buses themselves could be vessels for energy; when they stop in areas with abundant power supplies—say, on the edge of town, where there’s less congestion, population, and overall energy use—they could collect energy from microgrids at these wireless charging ports, then redistribute to grids that are more power-deficient.

“In theory, we could actually pick up energy from [a] non-congested network that has a lot of supply and deliver it, through these buses, to a network that is undersupplied,” he says. He specifically mentioning the Borough Hall network in Brooklyn, which is “taxed” under the current power paradigm.

Some day, Orsini notes, regular passenger vehicles could be capable of this energy transfer, too—especially in the era of the driverless car, when driving miles out of the way to get energy from an energy-rich microgrid would be less of an inconvenience.

“Electric car-charging infrastructure, using the transport system not only to transport people, but to transport energy back and forth, all of those things are fair game when you move to a decentralized energy system,” Orsini says.

So don’t be surprised if the culture of homegrown goods soon expands to include energy.

The Possibility Report is an ongoing series about how technology is changing our understanding of the world around us. This article is part of MOVE, our discussion about how today’s innovations could shape what we know about transportation, exploration, and navigation.