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Using Microbreweries to Explain Grid Modernization

Energy consultants tend to have a hard time relating to normal people.  Maybe that’s because we’re engineers at heart, or maybe it’s because we get too involved in our hyper-specific focus area and lose track of the general knowledge of everyday people.  Somewhere along the way, things that are taken for granted by someone who studies grid modernization are nuanced enough to give a layman pause.  This inability to maintain context, tantamount to a billionaire’s inability to list the price of a gallon of milk, makes articulating the really technical concepts all the more difficult.  With that context and the help of one of the great uniting forces in our world, the simple analogy below should help folks understand the current paradigm shift that the energy world is experiencing.

Microbreweries and brew pubs produce small amounts of beer, typically much smaller than large-scale corporate breweries (Up to 15,000 barrels of beer per year for a microbrewery compared to 6 million for a large brewery), and are unique in part because of their location and regional ingredients. The future of beer is most likely this smaller-scale supplier catering to the taste of local customers.

Residential solar arrays produce small amounts of electricity, typically much smaller than traditional utility power plants, and are unique in part because of their location, varying size, and quantity of installations. The future of the electricity system is this smaller-scale, quickly installed generation model.

The parallels between the regional microbreweries and distributed energy resources are obvious. Both industries are seeing their operations eliminate some of the cost of transportation by making the product where it is consumed. Microbrews often distribute locally to other businesses if they produce more than gets consumed on premises. The same goes for distributed generation, only the product is electricity.

A microbrew must go through regulatory procedures in order to acquire a license and actually begin selling beer. A distributed energy resource must also complete a regulated process to be connected to the grid and a tariff to sell its product.

Both industries can trace their roots back to the 1970s, but growth has accelerated rapidly in recent years as millennials come of age and society renews emphasis on local products.

It’s too far to say that these two decentralization transitions occurring right now are the same. There are huge differences in the business models that make both effective; huge differences in incentives, technical feasibility, and supply chains.

Beer takes many weeks to brew, and is easily stored until the proper time for consumption. Distributed solar generation produces electricity most every day and is most effectively utilized when it is consumed as it is produced. There are huge differences in the transportation infrastructures that enable both, but the tenants behind the road system can be applied to explain the dilemmas of the electricity grid.

The analogy bares enough parallels that it establishes a foundation of knowledge for the “enlightened” and laymen to discuss in more depth.

It is unlikely that the large national and international breweries are going away any time soon. Similarly, large central generation will continue to be needed to meet energy supply in addition to the proliferating distributed energy resources. So what about an “All of the Above” strategy for energy? That certainly doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it in terms of breweries.

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Erich Gunther was somehow a pioneer in both industries. His work in advancing the electrical grid was recognized by some of the largest organizations in the industry both during his life and upon his passing. His acumen as a homebrewer, the smallest variety of the microbreweries, was recognized by any who ventured close enough to find out about it. Erich’s passion for both was obvious.

I think Erich would have liked this analogy. This post is dedicated to Erich’s legacy and zeal for life.

-Sean Morash 

Sean Morash's picture

Thank Sean for the Post!

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