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Energy 101: What in the world is distributed generation?

distributed generationTo explain what distributed generation is, you’ve really got to start from the beginning. Way back in 1882, Thomas Edison built the first central power plant—Pearl Street Station—in Manhattan. It was a coal-fired facility that produced electricity which was then distributed to about 85 customers to light their businesses and homes. No surprise here, it proved to be quite the popular concept—electricity was generated at a plant and brought to residents via a little wire that seemed to magically bring electricity right to their buildings. It was so popular, in fact, that here we are today—130 years later—still doing it the same way, only on a much larger scale. When you flick on the light switch in your kitchen, the power comes into your home via a small residential distribution line, which is attached to a larger utility-scale transmission line which might run hundreds of miles to a large, centralized power plant that is churning out energy.

Edison’s central generation and distribution model makes sense on a larger scale because of the way the electricity was made at the time—by burning coal. Imagine if his idea would have been to install a tiny coal-fired power plant in each home that wanted electricity. Each family would have to get the coal, burn it to heat water, turn the turbine with the steam the burning coal makes, and have the machine to convert the steam’s energy in to electricity, and then light their light bulb. It doesn’t sound very convenient, cheap, or clean, does it?

But that was then, and this is now. Today, we do have fuel sources that make good sense to have on a small local scale, such as at a home or business. Solar, geothermal, biomass, and small wind are all sources of energy that work really well at a local level, providing electricity and heat directly to a home, business, or group of connected buildings. And that’s all distributed energy is—energy that’s locally produced and used onsite, rather than produced at a large central facility and transmitted across wires to where it needs to be used.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you are going “off the grid.” The rest of the electrical grid is still there, so if you need more energy than you can produce, you can buy more that was made somewhere else. And if you make more energy than you can use onsite, you can sell it back and put it on the grid for someone else to use.

So, what are the advantages to having your energy distributed rather than centralized?

  1. It helps you be more independent. You can produce what you need right there, possibly without relying on anyone else. Also, it means you have more control over what you are spending, rather than just paying what the utility says you have to pay.
  2. You get more choice about how your energy is made. Solar? Wind? Biomass? Your choice.
  3. All your eggs aren’t in one basket. We rely quite a bit on energy and if you are relying on one behemoth power plant for all your energy and that power plant goes down or the line that connects you to it is disrupted, it’s probably going to have a huge impact on you.
  4. You can utilize local resources. Live in a forested region? Maybe wood byproducts could heat and power your business. Good wind resource? Harvest it. Have a dairy farm? Utilize the methane to power your home and outbuildings.

Photo from Energy Self-Reliant States

To explain what distributed generation is, you've really got to start from the beginning. Way back in 1882...

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