Next City by Meg Wilcox

Maria Belén Power had never heard of a microgrid when the idea was proposed as a climate resiliency initiative for her city, Chelsea, a predominantly Hispanic community bordering the heavily industrialized Chelsea Creek, just outside of Boston.

The technical details were overwhelming at first for Power, who is associate executive director at the community-based organization, GreenRoots. As she grew to understand its alignment with GreenRoots’ environmental justice mission, she became more interested — and now she’s spearheading the creation of a microgrid in Chelsea.

Ultimately what convinced her, she says, was “the fact that it’s not a helicopter-in, telling people what to do project. We’re doing it from the ground up.”

If the initiative comes to fruition, Chelsea will be the first city to build a community-led, community-owned microgrid, designed to meet the needs of its population, 21 percent of whom live below the poverty line. The microgrid would be powered largely by solar energy and battery-stored power, and its design is uniquely cloud-based, which doesn’t require customers to be physically connected as with a conventional microgrid, like those found on some college campuses.

“Our model is different because we want to serve low-income communities and customers who aren’t necessarily near each other, so we combine them through a cloud-based system,” says David Dayton, an engineer and the founder of Clean Energy Solutions, which was brought in for the project.

Microgrids are small networks of electricity users with a local energy source that functions independently from the main grid. Using them as a climate resiliency solution is gaining steam across the country (Next City recently covered a microgrid on the South Side of Chicago). To date, however, most microgrids are still powered by dirty fuels, such as backup diesel generators — and most are owned by private entities.

GreenRoots believes such distributed energy is the best path for ensuring affordable energy, lowering greenhouse gas emissions and protecting its community, which is vulnerable to coastal flooding due to rising sea level and severe storms. The microgrid could, in fact, obviate the need for a new electric substation planned for East Boston, a flood-prone area on the opposite side of Chelsea Creek, according to John Walkey who also works at GreenRoots.

GreenRoots is fighting that substation’s construction, as it charts a more sustainable and resilient energy future. That’s part of what motivates Power. “We can’t just fight the bad without putting out new alternatives,” she says.

Power first learned about microgrids around two years ago, at a meeting of the Green Justice Coalition, a partnership of community-based, environmental and labor groups. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center had just issued a request for proposal for 14 community microgrid feasibility studies across the state. GreenRoots and the Chinese Progressive Association were the only coalition members who chose to move forward.

Green Justice Coalition teamed up with Resilient Urban Neighborhoods (RUN), a group of energy consultants interested in developing microgrids for low- and middle-income communities, and together they supported GreenRoots and the Chinese Progressive Association in securing funding from the state to carry out microgrid feasibility studies.

Each partner brings strengths to the table. “We’ve been doing organizing work for almost 25 years, so there are a lot of relationships we’ve developed,” Power says. That made it easy for GreenRoots to bring the institutions on board it felt were key in the event of an emergency, including Chelsea Public Schools, the New England Produce Center, City Hall, the police and fire departments, Chelsea Housing Authority, and two hospitals.

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