The 20th century of electricity generation was characterized by ever larger and more distant central power plants. But a 21st century technological dynamic offers the possibility of a dramatically different electricity future: millions of widely dispersed renewable energy plants and storage systems tied into a smart grid. It’s a more democratic and participatory paradigm, with homes, businesses and communities becoming energy producers as well as consumers actively involved in designing the rules for the new electricity system.
Decades ago, several people – Amory Lovins in Brittle Power, David Morris in Self-Reliant Cities – explored the implications of this decentralized vision. Most importantly, this vision represents a transformation in the ownership and control of the electricity system. Instead of a 20th century grid dominated by large, centralized utilities, the 21st century grid would be a democratized network of independently-owned and widely dispersed renewable energy generators, with the economic benefits of electricity generation as widely dispersed as the ownership.
This graphic, adapted from the European Commission, illustrates the paradigm change (click for a larger version):
The difference in the ensuing decades is the commoditization of distributed energy production (e.g. solar panels sold at Home Depot), the renewable energy industry growing to $100 billion, and the critical mass of such production on the electricity grid.
In the last two years a number of events have forced policymakers at the local, state and national level to grapple with the implications of a decentralized grid system and how the policies they adopt help or hinder such a 21st century energy system:
These events coincide with a dramatic rise in the amount of renewable energy on the U.S. electric grid. Although total renewable generation is only 10 percent of total electricity, in some regions the concentration has reached 15 to 20 percent or more. The rapid growth rate of this distributed renewable energy means that regulatory and utility policy must change immediately to plan appropriately for the coming distributed generation grid.
There are a number of benefits to a democratized electricity system, in addition to the monumental shift toward energy self-reliance.
1. Vast potential and deployment speed. Nearly every state could meet 20 percent of its electricity needs with rooftop solar PV alone. Two-thirds of states have sufficient wind, solar and geothermal power to get 100 percent of their electricity from in-state (and distributed) sources.
Distributed generation can also come online much faster than centralized generation. For example, while the entire world has installed barely 1,000 MW of centralized solar thermal power, Germany installed 7,400 MW of distributed solar PV in 2010 alone. Similarly, large wind projects often experience long delays awaiting new transmission capacity whereas distributed wind projects can often connect to the grid without significant infrastructure upgrades. Ontario’s feed-in tariff program, for example, provides fast-tracking for small-scale distributed generation (projects smaller than 500 kW) because it rarely creates significant grid impacts.
2. Favorable economics. Some renewable energy technologies (with federal subsidies) already compete toe-to-toe with fossil fuel generation, and others – like solar – are rapidly becoming less expensive. Furthermore, the vast majority of economies of scale for renewable energy technologies are captured at a modest size, well within accepted size definitions of distributed generation.
3. Local ownership and political support. The economic impact of locally owned renewable energy projects can be several times greater than absentee-owned projects, and distributed generation lends itself to ownership. Such local ownership also dramatically increases local acceptance of more renewable energy production. And because it’s a more efficient use of the electricity grid, distributed generation reduces the number of political fights over new high-voltage transmission lines.
The political support for distributed generation also stems from its inherent democratic nature. By dispersing the sources of power generation and opening the grid to producers large and small, a distributed grid allows for maximum participation in power production, creating a constituency for supporting the expansion of clean energy and distributed generation.
4. Value to the grid. Distributed generation is more resilient to disruption, with power generation spread over thousands of generators and over a wide geographic area. This makes it harder for a large area to be without power and easier to maintain grid stability.
A distributed grid can also be more efficient, by maximizing the potential of existing infrastructure. In California, the Public Utility Commission requires utilities to publish data on “sweet spots” on their grids and assist distributed energy developers to plug in where it’s of greatest benefit. This efficient usage can reduce the demand for new grid infrastructure, particularly expensive high-voltage transmission lines.
For an exhaustive list of the benefits of distributed generation, see the 207 benefits of distributed resources in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Small is Profitable.
The Potential for Distributed Generation
Most U.S. states have enormous potential for renewable electricity production that could be developed in a distributed, democratic fashion. In our 2009 report, Energy Self-Reliant States, we provided maps of the renewable energy potential by state based on current electricity demand. The following map illustrates the potential state self-sufficiency from rooftop solar PV alone.
State Potential Rooftop PV:
Almost every state could get 20 percent or more of its electricity from rooftop solar. This does not include the electricity generated from ground mounted arrays. Sufficient sunshine falls on every state to meet all its electricity needs from the sun provided that enough energy storage was also available. The following map shows the portion of a state’s land area that would be required to meet all its electricity needs with solar power. California’s 0.32 percent is equivalent to about half of Orange County; New York’s 0.66 percent is equivalent to less than half of Long Island. While a fully renewable, distributed grid would benefit from greater diversity than just solar power, the map provides a picture of the potential to power every state’s grid with local, distributed electricity.
State land area required to maximize solar PV:
The exponential growth rate of distributed generation like solar PV suggests that even if distributed generation makes up a small portion of generation now, its growth profile suggests that within the planning horizons of many utilities, it will comprise a significant and possibly majority portion of generation.
Germany, for example, deployed over 10,000 MW of solar PV projects in the past two years, over 80 percent on rooftops. Distributed generation is poised for massive growth in the United States.
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