Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Distributed Generation Approach


We've grown up in a country where when you flipped the switch on the wall to light a lamp, the electricity came from a power source dozens or maybe hundreds of miles away. This centralized model of power distribution is beginning to give way to a smarter approach: distributed generation. Small wind farms, solar installations for a building or apartment complex, co-generation systems that heat a neighborhood, geothermal deployments that heat in the winter and cool in the summer.

In this article in The Nation, Think Solar, Think Small, Craig Rosen builds a case for abandoning the grand notions of a national backbone grid in favor of small-scale, community-oriented power generation. He writes:

To be sure, the romance of a renewable national grid is classic American thinking: a big problem requires a big solution. But the distributed generation approach (DG in energy lingo) is emerging from advances in solar technology and detailed studies of alternatives to big power-line projects. Consider what happened when Minnesota regulators looked carefully last year at the CapX 2020 project, a proposed cluster of new power lines costing up to $1.7 billion. A key purpose of the lines was to link Minnesota with proposed wind farms in the Dakotas. This is just the type of project favored by Pickens and other supporters of big electric transmission. But after examination the regulators found that Minnesota could develop many small 10-40 megawatt wind farms within the state totaling 600 megawatts--equivalent to a modern power plant--without any new transmission.

"We call it the '600 megawatts for nothing' study," said Mike Michaud, an engineer and consultant who formerly worked with the state regulatory staff. "There was no denying there were twenty spots on the existing grid [where] you could put generation for no cost at all." Michaud added that there is no guarantee the $1.7 billion transmission project would be restricted to clean power--it might in some cases be used to transport power from coal-burning plants.

He mentions a study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance that determined half the states in the U.S. could be energy self-sufficient by harnessing renewables within their borders, satisfying a considerable fraction of their own energy needs.

Powerful food for thought...