Celebrating Lunar New Year with Microgrids in Chinatown

In 2000, a major power outage hit Chelsea, a city seated across the river from Boston. They suffered a total power loss, giving community leaders an energy resiliency wake up call. In 2021, local organizations including GreenRoots stepped up alongside their partner Resilient Urban Neighborhoods to ensure the city’s most impacted residents are protected if their grid ever goes dark again. One of their primary goals is to strategically install a network of microgrids in the city, prioritizing communities disproportionately impacted by climate change.


Microgrids are networks of batteries, solar panels, and backup generators that switch on when power from the main electric grid fails. These mini systems act like energy islands, storing affordable energy for use when demand is low and powering up to keep the lights on when the regional electric grids are overwhelmed during peak demand. At the same time, price rates from local corporate energy provider Eversource can dramatically rise. Taking this tech a step further, engineer David Dayton’s planned system in Chelsea uses cloud-based software, allowing networked buildings to tap into these energy reserves without being physically connected and turning them into “virtual power plants.”

Speaking to WBUR in 2021, Dayton shared his beliefs about energy: “Energy is a human right. We want to create what I call fossil-free zones around communities.” The plan is to get Chelsea’s microgrid system up and running in the near future, starting with connecting public services such as 911 dispatch and City Hall before continuing to connect local hospitals and housing complexes eligible for income-based programs like SNAP and Medicaid. Decades of systemic disinvestment and government neglect have left income-eligible communities in Chelsea to experience greater climate impacts. Community members and advocates see microgrid installation as a way to make these communities more climate resilient, providing power during outages and residents with the tools to be in control of their energy.
Dayton’s efforts in Chelsea have not gone unnoticed. Across the river in Boston, the Chinatown Community Land Trust & Chinese Progressive Association created Chinatown Power to respond to the growing need for climate-prepared energy systems in a region threatened by climate change. The neighborhood sits near the Boston Harbor and is projected to flood as sea levels rise.
Chinatown Power is working to build one of Dayton’s cloud-based microgrids to connect affordable housing complexes in the neighborhood and prioritize the needs of residents who need energy support the most. Their goal is to get at least a dozen buildings to participate in the microgrid pilot program – and since Chinatown is so densely populated, that dozen buildings translates to back up power and energy resiliency for many residents.
Cities across Massachusetts are taking notice of these climate-resilient energy technologies and expressing interest in developing their own microgrid systems. The state and wider region are already suffering the effects of climate change through extreme heat, rain, snow and flooding. Sustainable, future-forward technologies are a powerful tool in our climate resiliency kit as we work to build a healthier future. To learn more about microgrids and stay up to date with the work in Massachusetts, follow along with Climable’s podcast series on SoundCloud!
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