A recent report from Pike Research highlights a surprising trend in electric power generation: it is on its way to becoming more decentralized. This trend can be nothing but good for consumers and the environment, as highlighted by the effects of recent storms on the power grid. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, millions were left without power, some for more than 11 days. Although conventional power plants are beginning to have less of an impact on the environment as low natural gas prices have spurred a switch to cleaner-burning fuel, power production still accounts for a large portion of the greenhouse gases that are pumped in the atmosphere each year. Widespread installation of small-scale solar, wind, and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems at homes and businesses across the country could serve to alleviate the havoc that big storms wreak as well as lead the charge into a clean energy future. Here's a rundown:
Distributed generation – how it works:
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Distributed generation is the term used to describe the generation of power from many small-scale sources, distributed over a geographic area. This power is then used to power local homes and businesses or is fed into the grid for distribution farther afield. Power can be generated by any number of technologies ranging from photovoltaic solar, fuel cells, wind and micro-wind, combined heat and power, or small hydropower sources. Power storage is often a component and can also come in many forms, including flywheels, batteries, and even electric cars. All of these sources and storage media feed power to the grid or to the structures to which they are attached, providing clean, efficient power at the point of need. This point of need efficiency is especially important, as an average of 7% of generated power is lost to inefficiencies inherent in long distance transmission from far-flung power plants.
Distributed generation will take time:
The Pike report notes that the shift to widespread "pico generation" will take time and provides the development of the Internet as an analogy. According to Pike, "As [the decentralization of the internet] took over a decade and is ongoing, the process of energy democratization will also take a long time. We will not start to see large impacts on the energy market for some time yet. At present, the democratization of energy is in a phase that is the equivalent of [the internet in] 1996 …" In other words, there is a long way to go before the technologies and systems required to make widespread distributed generation become a reality.
Hurdles to implementation:
The current regulatory environment is hostile to onsite power generation. Power generation is tightly controlled by government regulations which, in some cases, give legal monopolies to large corporations to supply power. There is good reason for this, as the technology for integrating power provided by many small users over a large grid is still in the early stages of development and testing. Work currently being done in private research, as well as by the U.S. military, aims to develop these technologies to the point that they are feasible to use at the scale of the power grid. Experiments in Germany have shown promise in solving this tricky integration problem as well.
Cost is also a significant barrier. To install a photovoltaic solar system on the roof of the average suburban home costs in excess of $30,000. Other types of systems such as residential CHP and micro-wind power systems also have significant upfront costs. There are various schemes such as solar leasing and feed-in-tariffs that serve to lower these costs, however, and the cost of the technology itself is coming down as more and more corporations work to develop systems suitable for homes and businesses.
One other large hurdle to overcome is that of control. This is where electric utilities will need to pivot, as their role will eventually be focused much more on management of current flow and storage in the grid rather than power generation. Managing hundreds and thousands of micro-scale power sources, many of which will produce power on an intermittent basis, as well as managing payments to those small producers for the power they generate, will be a massive feat of control engineering. Utilities will have to contend with varying loads as they do now but will also have to factor in energy storage across multiple technologies and manage a far more complicated routing task.
Large power plants and the utilities that run them will be with us for the foreseeable future, but newly emerging power generation and storage technologies are driving changes that will eventually decentralize how we get our electricity. Such decentralization will provide cleaner, cheaper energy and will reduce the need for large power plants that pollute our skies.