Distributed and point-of-use generation have advantages and disadvantages over centralized power generation. Centralized generation requires an electrical grid, which is both costly and difficult to create since it demands an enormous right-of-way footprint. Our current electrical grid was developed higgledy-piggledy over time and increasingly reveals its growing decrepitude. It is less suitable to the many of the new forms of generation, especially variable renewable energy, like wind, which now comprises 40% of all new generation in the United States.
Restructuring our energy economy is a monumental, but critically needed undertaking. Promoting greater energy efficiency, developing utility-scale renewable energy generation and creation of a new, smart, electrical grid are important certainly, but getting less visibility is the rediscovery and resurgence of distributed energy, especially that based on sustainable sources. Distributed renewable energy generation has a huge potential market where there is no electrical grid, primarily in the developing world, but also in off-grid locations such as remote communities, military and offshore marine uses, and isolated scientific or other installations.
Distributed renewable energy generation will also often make sense even alongside centralized generation and grid distribution for several reasons:
- Operating cost: where there is no fuel expense the operating cost of distributed energy can be very low, limited only to maintenance and financing. Where excess is generated, it can be reverse-metered and make money.
- Environment: as the likelihood of the introducing some carbon tax or cap-and-trade system grows, a carbon-neutral solution gains appeal.
- Security and independence: locally produced and used power is not as subject to disruptions from foreign fuel supplies, labor unrest, hostile state or terrorist action.
- Capturing every-day human power, e.g. from revolving doors
- Piezoelectric harvesting from walking on floors
- Updating the mill pond to use small hydro
- Novel solar collection sites, like sidewalks (but what about dirt?)
- Motion-to-energy from normal human activity
- Backyard nuclear plants (Isaac Asimov would be thrilled!)
The ones that capture human power are especially tantalizing, since they appear at first to be free and nearly limitless from something otherwise wasted. However, I can't help but wonder if we were drawing energy from all our kinetic activities all day long, wouldn't we get rather hungry? No free lunch (or breakfast or dinner) means that the operating costs are just hidden in another way. Energy that comes from nature, however, be it flowing water, waves, solar, etc. does not require any significant input of human productivity to generate on a day-to-day basis. This is why we're so bullish on in-stream hydrokinetic power, and started our company Hydrovolts to make a product to harvest it.
The biggest disadvantage of distributed energy generation is capital cost. Economies of scale have largely favored centralized generation; to be cost-effective, distributed energy generation solutions must be simple, mass-produced, easily transported and require minimal installation time and expertise. Lots of companies, including ours, are seeking to create just these kinds of products.
Not all big problems need big solutions. In an era when "too big to fail" should imply too big to exist, it's time to start thinking and acting locally.