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Wisconsin Energy Institute

A livable city solution: the powerful potential of microgrids

By: 

Eric Anderson

Source: 

In Common

June 30, 2014

A majority of the world's population now lives in cities, which consume 75 percent of the world's resources and emit most of its greenhouse gases. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, an additional three billion people will move into these dense, resource-intense urban environments. 

“Projecting from current trends, you realize that we should have a plan for how this change unfolds,” says Mike Corradini, director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute and professor of engineering physics. 

As urban growth increases stress on global systems, Corradini is among a team of UW-Madison researchers working to develop solutions that contribute to the livability of future cities. When it comes to urban energy – and its ever-increasing consumption – Corradini believes resiliency, reliability and accessibility will be critical factors in ensuring a sustainable supply. 

“When you’re talking about a livable city, you’re not just talking about energy or energy use,” he says. “It’s a combination of how we use water, create food, construct buildings, and transport people or goods. These are all largely connected and interdependent.” 

Of course, different cities have different energy needs, which means that livable city solutions tend to vary according to local need. 

In the United States, for example, where infrastructure and utility support have made access to electricity nearly ubiquitous, plans for the future tend to focus on creating energy systems with greater efficiency and reliability. The focus in cities like New York or New Orleans is on building infrastructure to make cities more resilient when faced with extreme weather or natural disasters – by providing backup power during outages, as well as helping to ease systems back online as outages end. In developing countries, however, electrification systems are often weak or nonexistent and the focus tends to lie elsewhere. In Uganda, where less than nine percent of the population has access to electricity, communities prioritize the development of individual off-grid solutions that have the flexibility to grow and meet future needs. 

What’s certain is that worldwide growth of urban centers will continue to pose energy challenges. And these challenges carry with them an opportunity to amplify the impact of livable-solutions planning and policy. By improving the places people already reside and preparing early for where they will live in the future, we can improve how we interact with the environment on a very large scale. 

Microgrid researchers in the UW-Madison College of Engineering and the Wisconsin Energy Institute are taking up this challenge by developing an energy solution with the potential to strengthen all three critical factors of energy in a livable city: resiliency, reliability and accessibility. The microgrid, in other words, may offer a powerful, versatile and wide-ranging solution to a variety of energy challenges at different scales and under a range of conditions.

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