Santos1992/shutterstock
Santos1992/shutterstock

Snow has blanketed nearly three-quarters of the United States over the past week, forcing millions in Texas alone to survive without power for several days, with looming storms on the East Coast threatening similar hardships for many others.

The outages have led to lots of finger pointing, including from conservative commentators and Republican politicians blaming a supposed failure of renewable energy sources, a widely debunked claim. In reality, a variety of factors are at play. Yet many say that Texas’s independent power grid—one of three in the rather patchwork U.S. national system—and outdated energy infrastructure rank high among the reasons for its power failures.

The situation offers a preview of anticipated strains on energy infrastructure that are likely to result from intensifying weather patterns in coming years. We know intense heat waves fueled by climate change can push power grids past their limits, and there’s a growing body of evidence that climate change contributes to more frequent extreme winter weather, as well. At the same time, experts say an overhaul of the nation’s energy grid is necessary to accommodate the push to electrify everything—from our cars to our water heaters—in order to reduce carbon emissions. A smarter grid can make renewable energy sources more reliable, improve efficiency and reduce outages.

With these forces coming to a head this week, I took a look at a handful of funders who have supported organizations working to reimagine our nation’s electrical grid, as well as some who fund grid-related projects beyond the country’s borders. To date, it seems to have been a niche pursuit. But the growing pressures on these vital if often overlooked systems may give funders a new push to look at what role they can play in helping to modernize America’s power grid, which the U.S. Department of Energy calls “the largest interconnected machine on Earth.”

Energy Foundation

This intermediary funder has a longer list of grid-related grants than most, listing 26 grants to grid-focused groups between 2016 and 2018. While it doesn’t provide more recent data on its grantmaking, frequent past grantees include the Americans for a Clean Energy Grid coalition and the environmental-justice-focused nonprofit GRID Alternatives. Two grid-related projects of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies have also received regular support.

Joyce Foundation

This Chicago-based grantmaker has been supporting the development of a smart grid in its region for at least a decade. One of its long-term partners has been the Illinois Citizens Utility Board, which received a two-year, $400,000 grant in 2019. It has also supported related work by the Environmental Defense Fund.

MacArthur Foundation

Joyce’s Windy City neighbor has also been giving out power-grid-related funding for several years, including supporting the same local utility board as its Chicago counterpart. But the lion’s share of such grants are broader in scope, with recipients in Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts. Most recently, MacArthur made a six-month, $250,000 grant to Berkeley-based nonprofit Grid Lab to model the feasibility of integrating renewable energy to the power grid as part of its Climate Solutions.

Unlike Joyce, MacArthur has also gone beyond the U.S. on this issue. The funder made several six-figure grants in India between 2016 and 2018, primarily to analyze the state of the country’s energy grid and examine how to integrate additional renewable energy.

It’s also made some pretty hefty grants in this space. In 2019, the foundation made a two-year, $2 million grant to the Union of Concerned Scientists for work including promoting a “clean, resilient and equitable” electrical grid.

Rockefeller Foundation

This century-old foundation, famously based in oil wealth, has long invested in energy infrastructure abroad, particularly in India. For instance, the philanthropy—founded by Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller—partnered with India’s power giant, Tata Power, to launch a renewable micro-grid initiative that aims to provide clean power to 5 million households. It has also financed the development of 60 mini-grids in Tanzania.

Rockefeller has also done at least one domestic project. It joined with several organizations, including the Community Foundation of Puerto Rico, on a project to roll out renewable energy micro-grids on that island, whose energy challenges were heightened by the devastation wrought in 2017 by Hurricane Maria.

Thomas M. Siebel

We have previously covered how this software billionaire put $10 million toward starting the Siebel Energy Institute, which itself gave out nearly $3 million in grants to seed small grid-related projects in the hope they would attract greater investment. The institute has also funded research on the topic, such as partnering with BloombergNEF to produce the State of Global Mini-Grids Market Report 2020.

However, it appears that, at least for now, Siebel’s attention is elsewhere. The institute’s website is a blank page, and a search on the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation—through which he and his wife carry out their other philanthropy—links to a broken page.

Siebel seems to be missing in action for now, but with an estimated $6 billion fortune, he could still have a big impact on this sector philanthropically. It’s possible he’s more focused on business-side solutions: The artificial intelligence company he founded and runs, C3.ai, provides analytics for power grid operators, among other lines of work.

What’s next for smart grid funding?

This is an area we’ll be watching closely, and this is, of course, a partial list. Philanthropists ranging from Mike Bloomberg to actor Will Smith have put money, directly or indirectly, toward modernizing power grids in anticipation of a carbon-free future. The W.M. Keck Foundation, for example, got its name on a new Smart Grid Lab at Oregon Institute of Technology in exchange for a $225,000 grant in 2018. Government funding, largely through the Department of Energy, is another major source of support. Yet other than federal funding, many of these past investments appear to be one-off.

Power grids are, inherently, large networks. They involve a wide range of players and stakeholders. Foundations often boast a unique convening power that can pull representatives from various sectors into the same room. In addition to research and analysis, philanthropy might want to consider how to leverage this power to facilitate a forward-looking approach to this vital infrastructure.

After this week’s stark reminder of the fragility in parts of our grid, and given President Joe Biden’s push to remake the grid as part of his climate change portfolio, more action on this front will surely be on the way. Philanthropy can ensure all perspectives are represented in those coming efforts—and particularly that the voice of the public is heard in a policy realm that can strike even experts as arcane.

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