Hundreds of thousands of people went without power in southeastern Louisiana, United States, after Hurricane Laura made landfall on August 27, 2020. There was also no indication of when the power will return.

Such power blackouts are not unique to this latest storm. They are a consequence that can be expected whenever a major hurricane, wildfire, or heat wave grips a region powered by a fragile, aging grid.

And this is not just an United States’ problem. Earlier this summer, Hurricane Isaias left more than two million people along the east coast without power. A derecho with hurricane-grade winds in the midwest left over 250,000 without power two weeks ago. California experienced historic rolling blackouts amidst a heat wave around the same time.

This starkest example of all might be Hurricane Maria. After the storm pummeled Puerto Rico in 2017, the vast majority of the island went dark and it wasn’t until 11 months later that the island fully recovered electricity. It’s the worst power outage in US history and a longterm public health crisis, leaving people scrambling to access essential medicine and putting sanitation systems offline. The disaster laid bare the vulnerabilities of a centralized, fossil fuel-dependent power system to major climatic shocks.

Yet Hurricane Maria wasn’t just a lesson in what went wrong. It also showed what a disaster-resilient energy model could look like, particularly in the mountainous town of Adjuntas in Puerto Rico. When the community fell dark after the storm, there remained all but one source of power: a solar microgrid operated by Casa Pueblo, an environmental nonprofit and community center. The microgrid—a small power system with its own power source, capable of being disconnected from the main grid—made it easier for the community to recover in the long months to come.

“We became an energy oasis for the community,” says Arturo Massol-Deyá, the executive director of Casa Pueblo. The space, which also boasts a radio station and coffee shop, offered shelter, community, and power. People could charge essential electronics, receive food and medical supplies, use a satellite phone to call loved ones, and come together in the aftermath of a disaster. Casa Pueblo also distributed 14,000 solar lanterns to people nearby who remained without power.

It became clear that this could offer a way forward in future disasters, too. “Since [Hurricane Maria], we have been more aggressively promoting a transition to clean energy sources not as an opportunity, but more as a necessity for the island,” says Massol-Deyá. To date, they’ve installed over 150 solar projects, including at the fire station, grocery store, a nursing home, a hardware store, a pizza parlour, and in the homes of people with energy-dependent medical needs, like dialysis.

Already, these operations have been tested. Massol-Deyá says the solar operations have smoothly weathered a year-long series of earthquakes, as well as other disruptions this past month. “We have had two storms passing by Puerto Rico in the last 10 days and twice blackouts, yet our systems and all the projects that we have done—over 150—they’re resilient,” says Massol-Deyá. Plus, if something were to happen to one installation, he says it’s easy to repair and the entire system isn’t compromised.

Meanwhile, the country’s grid has continued to falter, even after being rebuilt following Hurricane Maria. “This time, Puerto Rico’s precarious power system faced an entirely different problem: The lines and poles rebuilt after the storm held up, but some of the aging power plants did not, revealing yet another urgent need for the bankrupt power authority,” reported The New York Times in January.

Beyond a more steady source of power, Massol-Deyá sees microgrids as part of a broader vision of creating an energy system that local people are able to control. “We want to democratize energy in Puerto Rico and we want people to be producers instead of consumers,” says Massol-Deyá. “The wealth associated with energy generation can be distributed among the population as a way to deal with poverty.”

It’s not exactly surprising that a microgrid would perform better during a disaster. “In general, the reason you build a microgrid is so that it will provide power to critical loads—things you don’t want to lose—when the larger transmission system goes down,” says Robert Jeffers, a systems researcher who studies microgrids and energy systems at Sandia National Laboratories, “It’s natural that they would perform better than the transmission system during a hurricane because that’s what they were designed to do.”

That said, Jeffers says that “if you’ve seen one microgrid, you’ve seen one microgrid.” There can be a lot of variation in the design and purpose. In remote parts of Alaska, for instance, microgrids are used in places where transmission lines simply can’t reach.

Along with Puerto Rico, other hurricane-vulnerable regions have turned to microgrids as part of a way to build resilience for the next—and likely worse—hurricane. “In our region we are susceptible to these high wind events for six months a year because our hurricane season starts at the beginning of June and ends in November,” says Fidel Neverson, who lives in St. Lucia & the Grenadines and is a project manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Islands Energy Program.

The program has been installing microgrids, solar panels, and batteries on islands across the Caribbean, including nine microgrids in the Bahamas, to prepare for a future of worsening hurricane seasons. Neverson says it’s also a way for the islands to become “energy independent” by not relying on costly imported fossil fuel. “When you’re on a little island, you’re relying on fuel coming in from somewhere to provide your generators with the fuel that it needs.”

It also can save customers who end up paying for these imported fuels. “In the Bahamas, you may see electricity rates more like 30 cents per kilowatt-hour,” says Neverson. That’s double the average cost in the United States of 13.19 cents per kilowatt-hour. So, he says, “it makes a lot of sense from a cost savings standpoint to turn these small Island grids into microgrids.”

Currently, the Islands Energy Program is nearly done with the construction of a renewable microgrid on Ragged Island in the southern Bahamas. In the northern Bahamas, they are also building renewable microgrids to backup critical facilities on the Abaco Islands, which were hit hard by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. “What happened is essentially the power system there was devastated. All the power lines were taken down,” Neverson says. “In that case, you see the value of microgrids because you had these two power stations that were responsible for powering an entire island.”

While hurricanes are often thought of an island and coastal problem, more inland areas and landlocked states have also turned to microgrids. In the Rutland county, Vermont, the Stafford Hill Solar Farm and Microgrid was built over a capped landfill after Hurricane Irene inundated the region with flooding in 2011. “There were 11 inches of rain. Certain areas were isolated because roads and bridges are washed out,” says Todd Olinksy-Paul, a director of the Energy Storage Technology Advancement Partnership behind the project. “Something like a sixth of the state was left without electricity service from the grid.”

“Part of the impetus for the project was to figure out a way to provide community shelter with backup power in case of a grid outage,” says Todd Olinsky-Paul. It’s now able to power 2,000 homes in addition to a local high school that acts as a shelter during emergencies.

A key part of this project is the battery storage, explains Olinsky-Paul. It’s able to reduce the energy load on ordinary days and the amount ratepayers pay for transmission, while also increasing reliability.

The most recent Senate Democrats’ climate report notes the need for more distributed energy systems like microgrids. “There is an important role for small-scale distributed generation, which can help provide resilience during natural disasters and meet equity and environmental justice goals,” the report notes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go into more details on the policies that would help increase the deployment and access to microgrids.

A microgrid itself doesn’t address environmental justice; like any technology, it depends on how it is used and integrated into a community. In fact, it could also further energy inequalities by essentially privatizing parts of the grid, explains Johanna Bozuwa, the co-manager of the climate and energy program at the Democracy Collaborative. “I think there is a real potential in which we see microgrids implemented in higher income communities,” says Bozuwa, “But then that doesn’t allow for low-income community members or folks in disenfranchised neighborhoods to actually get access to those services.”

Currently, low-income communities face barriers to accessing distributed renewable power. Bozuwa points to the fact that tax credits, one of the main incentive mechanisms for renewable energy, are not available to nonprofit organizations that don’t pay federal taxes, as well as cooperatives and low-income people who don’t pay enough taxes to make the cut. “That is a problem because often those are the entities that actually have the most incentive to try to create resiliency because they often are community based,” says Bozuwa.

Another key consideration is the ownership model for this technology. Across the country, advocates have been pushing for publicly-owned energy as a way to better incentivize the transition to renewables, while also giving people more say of their energy future. In Iowa, which just suffered a massive power outage from a derecho, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has been pushing to transition to more of a microgrid system. Adam Mason, the state policy organizing director, says they want power to be locally owned and democratically controlled. Already, some of Iowa’s longstanding (once fossil fuel-dependent) rural electric cooperatives are embracing solar energy; Mason hopes this model can be made more transparent and open to community participation.

Along with helping the state survive extreme flooding and wind events, Mason sees this community-owned, decentralized energy system as key to shifting the state away from corporate farming toward more local systems and jobs. “[It] will mean that we can start to bring some jobs back to these rural communities and development that will lead to more localized and small processors in some of these rural towns,” says Mason.

Similarly, Logan Atkinson Burke, the executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a Louisiana ratepayer advocacy organization, is pushing for a more grassroots-driven energy system for New Orleans. “In a city like New Orleans, where there is significant poverty, there are opportunities for what is closer to a mutual aid model than the traditional utility business model that was just about building and owning things,” says Burke.

As for Casa Pueblo, their next project is building Puerto Rico’s first community-owned and -managed solar microgrid with battery power, which will power 17 businesses on the island. By allowing community members to have control over the energy system, Massol-Deyá envisions this as a key way to give the island more determining power over its future. He says, “If Puerto Rico can fulfill its own energy needs, then we can think about decolonizing the island from this political situation we have with the US.”

(First published in Popular Science in August 2020)