Distributed Generation: What Are the Benefits?

Increased efficiency. Reduced rates. Improved reliability. Diminished emissions. If all of that sounds good to you, then you ought to know about the benefits of distributed generation.

A few weeks back, we covered microgrids and why they’re important in the context of the larger, main grid. As you might recall, microgrids are defined not by their size, but rather by their function—crucially, their ability to break off from the main grid and operate autonomously. Got it? Well, if that makes sense, think of distributed generation as a network of systems just like that.

That’s oversimplifying it a little, but the overall concept holds true. Distributed generation is when electricity comes from many small energy sources. Generally, these sources are local and renewable. They’re all connected to the larger grid but can also function separately.

If all this sounds unfamiliar, that’s because it’s not the “normal” way of doing things. But it does have its advantages.

Distributed generationThe traditional model

In the traditional transmission and distribution (T&D) grid, large sources provide power to huge numbers of residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Some of those customers live close to the centralized power plants. Other live far away—sometimes very, very far.

In contrast, a distributed generation (DG) system has smaller, decentralized sources that generate electricity much closer to the people who use it. There are lots of producers, and even though they produce less individually, they’re all connected to the grid. Together, they can be quite effective.

Several technologies form the backbone of a DG system. Some of the most prominent are solar, wind, and hydro. Another is cogeneration, which is the production of electricity from what is essentially the leftover energy from other forms of generation. Yet another is an energy storage system, which stays connected to the grid and holds energy until it’s needed.

So what are the benefits of distributed generation? In 2007, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report outlining some of DG’s advantages. Here’s what they came up with (h/t Energy.gov):

  • Increased electric system reliability
  • An emergency supply of power
  • Reduction of peak power requirements
  • Offsets to investments in generation, transmission, or distribution facilities that would otherwise be recovered through rates
  • Provision of ancillary services, including reactive power
  • Improvements in power quality
  • Reductions in land-use effects and rights-of-way acquisition costs
  • Reduction in vulnerability to terrorism and improvements in infrastructure resilience

Those are all really important concepts, but let’s focus on that first one.

Distributed generationIncreased reliability, better performance

One way to think about the benefits of distributed energy is to visualize your cell phone’s network. Imagine for a moment that your carrier had only a few towers in just a few spots around the country. The towers would be massive and powerful, but you wouldn’t have the same reliability and coverage that you have now. The reasons should be obvious. With a network of smaller, more evenly placed towers, cell-phone carriers are able to provide the best service possible to their customers.

Distributed generation is no different. When centralized power plants transmit energy over long distances, some of that energy is lost. With distributed generation, the generators are closer to those who use the energy. Thus there’s less waste. Increased efficiency. In the old model, a loss in service at any point of the grid means everyone suffers. In the new model, that’s less likely to happen.

DG can also serve as a backup to the grid, acting as an emergency source for public services in the case of a natural disaster. Here in North Alabama, that kind of service could be invaluable after a tornado. And by producing energy locally, DG systems can reduce demand at peak times in specific areas and alleviate congestion on the main grid.

Finally, because distributed energy tends to come from renewable sources, it’s good for the environment. Using more renewables means lowering emissions. And lowering emissions makes the world a more enjoyable place for all of us.

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