Tomorrow’s electrical generation: distributed or concentrated?

There is an interesting debate ongoing on the Gristmill blog about whether the future of electrical generation lies primarily with big centralized power plants, like today, or with distributed systems.

Naturally, there are many factors that influence which is more attractive, many of which are regulatory rather than inherent to the physics or economics. I suspect the key dynamics will be the relative efficiency of differently sized facilities, the rate at which low-loss high voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission emerges, and the rate at which financing options for small facilities proliferate. Other important considerations will be the rate of improvement in the economics of solar photovoltaic systems, as well as the development and deployment of demand management and energy storage options for the grid.

In any event, it is doubtful whether one approach or the other will ever truly dominate. In all probability, a low-carbon society will incorporate both approaches in keeping with the strengths of different technologies and the needs of different areas.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Tomorrow’s electrical generation: distributed or concentrated?”

  1. There is something intuitively appealing about generating power locally: within a city, neighbourhood, or even building.

    At the same time, if we want to use a lot more renewables, we will need the diversity provided by a national grid linking many seperate facilities.

  2. Small is ugly if it means we keep burning coal
    Big is beautiful if it breaks our dead-dinosaur addiction
    Posted by Gar Lipow (Guest Contributor) at 10:59 AM on 10 Feb 2009

    “While I think there may be real conflict between this and what radical decentralists say, I also think this conflict can be exaggerated. This is not an argument that the majority of power has to travel long distances. I think a lot power can be generated locally, depending on what you define as locally. Only a minority of power will have to travel long distances, and only a minority of that will need to travel more than a few hundred miles.

    Saying that we will need transmission to convert to a mostly renewable society is not the same as saying that most of the power lines proposed by current utilities are justified. Carol Overland, in her recent Gristmill post made the point that most (perhaps all) such proposals are about merchant power to buy and sell more conventional generation, mostly coal and nuclear power.”

  3. British engineers slam home wind turbines as ‘eco-bling’

    LONDON—Installing wind turbines and solar panels in people’s homes is “eco-bling” that will not help meet Britain’s targets on cutting carbon emissions, engineers warned Wednesday.

    In a new report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE), Professor Doug King said it was better to adapt buildings to make them more energy efficient than try to offset energy use with “on-site renewable energy generation.”

    The leader of Britain’s main opposition Conservative party, David Cameron, is among those who have installed wind turbines, fixing one onto the roof of his home in the plush west London district of Notting Hill.

    “Eco-bling is a term I coined to describe unnecessary renewable energy visibly attached to the outside of poorly designed buildings,” King told the Daily Mail newspaper ahead of the report’s publication.

  4. “On July 27th, as part of its new “annual energy statement”, the Department of Energy and Climate Change put some numbers to this effect. Green policies will raise domestic gas prices in 2020 by 18% and electricity prices by 33%, it said. For nondomestic users the impact will be greater—24% and 43% respectively—and other estimates put the figures higher still.

    For residential consumers, the department says, this will matter little. Since government policies to improve domestic energy efficiency, set up smart meters and so on will reduce demand, bills should end up more or less the same—if, that is, the money-saving policies work perfectly and lots of people go in for them.

    But even if energy-saving were to balance out the domestic costs of greener environmental policies, the costs themselves may not be justified, especially if there are simpler ways of achieving the same end. An analysis published this week by Policy Exchange, a think-tank, looks at the price of carbon implicit in a range of policies. It found the price implied by the renewables obligation was almost ten times as great as the price of carbon in the European emissions-trading scheme (see chart). Subsidising microgeneration at home costs even more. Assessing such policies in terms of how much carbon reduction they achieve for each pound spent, these high figures are hard to justify.

  5. Energy in the developing world
    Power to the people
    Technology and development: A growing number of initiatives are promoting bottom-up ways to deliver energy to the world’s poor

    Sep 2nd 2010

    AROUND 1.5 billion people, or more than a fifth of the world’s population, have no access to electricity, and a billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply. Of the people without electricity, 85% live in rural areas or on the fringes of cities. Extending energy grids into these areas is expensive: the United Nations estimates that an average of $35 billion-40 billion a year needs to be invested until 2030 so everyone on the planet can cook, heat and light their premises, and have energy for productive uses such as schooling. On current trends, however, the number of “energy poor” people will barely budge, and 16% of the world’s population will still have no electricity by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.

    But why wait for top-down solutions? Providing energy in a bottom-up way instead has a lot to recommend it. There is no need to wait for politicians or utilities to act. The technology in question, from solar panels to low-energy light-emitting diodes (LEDs), is rapidly falling in price. Local, bottom-up systems may be more sustainable and produce fewer carbon emissions than centralised schemes. In the rich world, in fact, the trend is towards a more flexible system of distributed, sustainable power sources. The developing world has an opportunity to leapfrog the centralised model, just as it leapfrogged fixed-line telecoms and went straight to mobile phones.

    But just as the spread of mobile phones was helped along by new business models, such as pre-paid airtime cards and village “telephone ladies”, new approaches are now needed. “We need to reinvent how energy is delivered,” says Simon Desjardins, who manages a programme at the Shell Foundation that invests in for-profit ways to deliver energy to the poor. “Companies need to come up with innovative business models and technology.” Fortunately, lots of people are doing just that.

  6. Solar power
    Desert dawn
    Some solar plants need to be big; most of them don’t

    Apr 14th 2011 | from the print edition

    IT LOOKS like a planetary tattoo designed to be seen from space, a vast set of concentric circles inscribed in the skin of southern California’s desert. Ground was broken on the Ivanpah power plant, which is to be one of the biggest solar installations in the world, last October. Already, some of the rings of mirrors which will eventually concentrate acres-worth of desert sunshine on to collectors perched atop 140-metre-high towers are in place. And as of this week, so is the financing.

    BrightSource, based in Oakland, California, announced on April 11th that it had finalised $1.6 billion in loans for Ivanpah from America’s government. At the same time it announced that Google had taken a $168m stake in the project.

    Ivanpah needs all this money because BrightSource’s technology requires it to be vast compared with other types of solar installation. Most solar power comes from photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight directly into electricity: installations of this type can be any size. BrightSource’s system, like other “solar thermal” technologies, concentrates the sun’s heat to drive turbines; and the high-performance steam turbines it relies on are big. The three to be installed at Ivanpah will together have a greater capacity than all the “utility scale” photovoltaic plants yet built in America.

  7. WHO needs the power grid when you can generate and store your own electricity cheaply and reliably? Such a world is drawing nearer: good news for consumers, but a potential shock for utility companies. That is the conclusion of a report this week by Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, which predicts that ever-cheaper solar and other renewable-energy sources, combined with better and more plentiful batteries, will allow many businesses and other electricity users to cut the cord on their electricity providers.

    Not all distributed-power schemes involve renewable sources, or batteries. Wesleyan University in Connecticut has installed a system based around an efficient engine running on natural gas (which fracking has made cheap in America). Besides generating about 95% of the electricity that the university needs, the set-up captures much of the engine’s waste heat to provide heating and hot water, cutting the institution’s net energy consumption by 30%.

    Waste-recycling schemes are playing a role too: with the right bugs, anaerobic digesters can gobble up any kind of organic waste, from food scraps to cow dung, giving off methane that can be used to run a generator. But by far the most disruptive new power source is solar panels. Morgan Stanley reckons that if Tesla’s factory provides the cheap batteries it promises, Californian households will be able to run off a solar-plus-storage system costing just $350 a year. Buying electricity off the grid may cost them around $750 a year by then.

    Morningstar, an investment-research firm, says that though distributed generation represents only 1% of America’s installed capacity now (compared with 20% in Germany), it could make up a third by 2017 and could “kill” utilities in their current form. Small-scale producers will dump their surplus power on the market at prices below those at which the utilities can recoup their cost of capital—and thus pay to maintain the grid.

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