During my conversation with the Director of Enterprise within the Navarran Department of Innovation, Enterprise, and Employment, she mentioned distributed generation as the next phase of Spain’s renewable energy investment. Distributed generation is the production of electricity at or near the site of consumption. Homeowners that get part of their electricity from their own solar panels are distributed generators, for example.
Thomas Edison’s first electricity generation station – the Pearl Street Station in Manhattan – was revolutionary because it provided the first system through which electricity could be distributed from a single power station to other nearby places. Over time, many other localized electricity systems sprung up in cities around the world, but they all produced power for a relatively small area because they could only transmit electricity within a mile or so. After a while, larger companies figured out how to send electricity much farther – over tens and then hundreds of miles. Once these companies had the ability to send electricity over long distances, they also had the ability to build much larger power plants that could produce electricity for less money. One by one, these large companies picked off the smaller neighborhood stations.
In our modern world, the continued reliance on large plants and long-distance transmission presents challenges for integrating renewable energy into the electricity system. Most cites get electricity from large (baseload) plants that operate 24-7. The electricity transmission system requires almost absolute balance between power supply and power usage, and baseload plants help achieve that need. Renewables are difficult to manage, because wind and solar, the dominant sources, are available only when the wind blows or the sun shines. If the power becomes unavailable, supply and demand no longer match, and the entire electricity system can short out. Until scientists develop better ways to store large amounts of electricity, large-scale renewable sources face serious practical hurdles.
But distributed generation provides a way to offset some of these challenges. It involves the production of less power from any given source, but also provides fewer challenges for electricity storage. If the source includes even a small battery, it can operate at night by relying on battery power. For example, this irrigation pump house is powered by solar energy.
I loved this use of distributed generation-
Solar energy powers the lights for this bike path at night. Each light has a solar collector and a battery to store the energy. When the sun sets, the battery kicks in and provides the light. The next day, the sun recharges the battery. There’s no reason why we can’t do smaller distributed generation projects like this in cities around the world. The more we invest in distributed generation, the more we offset the need for increased baseload energy and the more time scientists will have to develop larger scale storage technologies.