Recent storms such as Hurricane Harvey, Irma, and Maria have devastated many communities across the southern United States and in the Caribbean. These events are a reminder of the fragility of much of our infrastructure, including our power grids. Too often, recovery from natural disasters is complicated and prolonged by a lack of power.
To rebuild after Hurricane Irma, utility companies in Florida alone will need to replace "nearly 3,000 poles and 950 miles of wire," NPR reports. Events like these prompt the question “How will we plan for a more resilient system of power generation and distribution in our future?” The answer may be closer than we think.
Distributed Generation: A New Power Paradigm
As the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) explains, “Most of the power in the United States is currently generated from centralized sources (e.g. coal, natural gas, nuclear, large hydropower), which transmit large amounts of power over long distances.” This centralized generation requires massive infrastructure projects to create and maintain the capacity to deliver power to consumers.
This model leads to many inefficiencies. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that “electricity transmission and distribution losses average about 5% of the electricity that is transmitted and distributed annually in the United States.” It also leaves consumers vulnerable to outages due to weather, natural disasters, or infrastructure issues.
A newer model, distributed generation, de-centralizes power production and eliminates much of the need for elaborate distribution infrastructure. Often, the on-site power generator can also feed excess energy back into the distribution grid. As EESI notes, “By generating electricity in smaller amounts closer to end-users, we can dramatically increase energy efficiency, reduce carbon pollution, improve grid resiliency, and curtail the need for new transmission investments.”
The primary power sources that enable distributed generation are solar and wind, as well as waste-to-fuel and even combined heat and power (which reclaims heat created by traditional power plants). Think of it this way: distributed generation is to the energy grid what mobile phones are to telephone wires, each allows consumers “wireless” access to the connection they need, close to hand and on their terms.
A Call for Grid Modernization
Of course, it will take a collective effort to optimize the possibilities of distributed generation through modernizing the current grid infrastructure. Currently, there are some regulatory obstacles (primarily as a result of utility monopolies) to grid modernization, but as costs for distributed generation systems such as solar-plus-storage continue to fall, more and more consumers are advocating for their value.
Recently, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) released a white paper addressing the pressing need for improved energy distribution planning that includes increased space for distributed generation from sources such as wind and solar. The paper, Improving Distribution System Planning to Incorporate Distributed Energy Resources, includes insight into current utility distribution planning processes as well as how leading states such as New York and California are “attempting to modernize their systems to leverage the vast capabilities of distributed energy resources.”
Sean Gallagher, SEIA’s vice president of state affairs, notes that “When done correctly, grid modernization can create new opportunities for energy sources like solar, leading to economic benefits for both utility customers and the grid.”
Distributed Generation in Action
While much work needs to be done to create more opportunities for distributed generation, many communities have already taken action to create distributed energy resources. As GreenBiz reports, the town of Sterling, Massachusetts has installed a solar-plus-storage microgrid capable of powering its police station and emergency dispatch center for up to two weeks in the event of power loss. Ocracoke Island in North Carolina benefitted from its microgrid last summer when the power lines to the island were accidentally severed. “While the transmission line was out of commission for seven days, the microgrid helped provide power for island residents,” GreenBiz notes.
Creating a More Resilient Grid
Other islands, like Puerto Rico, have not been so lucky. Left without power after Hurricane Maria, the island faces several months without consistent power. In the wake of the storm, energy experts are calling for action that will create more resilient power grids for both islands and mainland communities. The Washington Post reports that “A different model would be to rely on wind, solar and batteries to store the electricity — with fossil-fuel backup ready to go when needed — and to set up small grids powered by renewables that link to a main grid but that also can be “islanded” from it.”
At Solar Design Studio, we believe that planning for a sustainable future includes making it easier for communities to develop distributed generation grids that provide energy independence and resilience. We’ll be discussing distributed generation in greater detail in the coming months on our blog.
If you would like to learn more about distributed generation or solar-plus-storage systems (either residential or commercial), contact us today!