Talking to sustainability experts over the past month, I was introduced to the idea of distributed power generation. This is hardly a new idea, but I’m new to all this stuff. The idea is to move from how we currently generate electricity – big centralized industrial plants – to generating from many small, local energy sources, like a solar panel on your roof.
People have been putting solar panels on their roofs for a while to try to reduce their power bills or go ‘off the grid’ but this is different. It involves not only generating power for yourself, but also being able to supply excess power back onto the grid (and receive money back from the utility for it). This would turn the electric grid into more of a web – you could both take power from the grid, and provide power to it.
Making most of our power in centralized industrial sites as we do has the advantage of producing a lot of power quickly and cheaply, but clearly has big problems. One is that centralizing power encourages the status quo: the economics of big centralized sites tend to work much better for a coal plant than for renewable energy sources. It’s currently expensive and complicated to make a big solar array or a big wind farm.
Also, centralized generation means electricity is often transported long distances through power wires to get to you, and much of it is lost during this transportation. Your electricity bill probably contains a line for “Loss factor adjustment” – your bill is actually marked up to compensate for this lost power.
All of this means the current system is incredibly inefficient – we make power in environmentally harmful, unstable ways, and then lose lots of it before it even gets to us.
Distributed generation addresses all of these issues – putting power generation in your neighborhood means no power is lost in transportation, means the system is insulated from local failures, and tends to make the economics of renewable sources work better. There are still many challenges to it (most power companies don’t allow you to put power back onto the grid yet).
What I find really interesting is the obvious parallel with how the internet is also shifting media power away from centralized industrial production (media companies) to small, local, distributed production (cute videos of cats). The fact that change has happened so quickly in media gives me some hope that it could happen just as quickly in the world of energy.