A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday August 11 edition of the Rutland Herald /Times Argus.
A cleaner energy future looks bright. It means less pollution, lower costs and better service. Getting there takes some work.
It’s a pretty good bet that a cleaner energy future includes lots more “distributed generation” and fewer large, centralized power plants. Think about your PC or MacBook in place of a huge central computer, or your cellphone — and computer — in your pocket. Examples of distributed generation include solar panels on roofs of homes and parking garages and community wind power.
Linking these sources together so they can power our cars, run our refrigerators and keep us cool is a challenge — one that we must embrace. Failing to meet it leaves us with yesterday’s dirty coal plants or problematic new pipelines for tomorrow’s power needs.
The challenge is that our electrical grid operates without storing energy. The grid is a marvel of human ingenuity that delivers power from any electrical plant to anyone in the region who turns on a switch. It is a bit like a seesaw. The grid must keep in balance the power coming in with the power going out.
Our grid was built and designed to keep this balance by operating mostly with large regional power plants, some of which can be turned on and off fairly easily. When we add more, smaller power sources, keeping the balance becomes a different challenge.
The seesaw must balance with a handful of marbles instead of a few large buckets. But the marbles are more nimble, and the solar panel on your roof delivers power that doesn’t need to travel far. The challenge in the next decade is making our grid as nimble as our power resources to make the most of these new advantages.
If we fail to figure out how to balance our grid with the use of smaller, cleaner resources, we will have more situations where we keep burning fossil fuels instead of allowing wind power on hot summer days, a situation that occurred during our most recent hot spell.
A group of environmental organizations and businesses known as the E4 Group is working with the region’s grid operator to help us meet this challenge. To start, we must correctly account for the amount of new smaller sources that will be used.
A recent report prepared for the E4 Group, “Forecasting Distributed Generation in New England,” by Synapse Energy Economics shows how billions are being spent in the region now to improve our electric transmission system. Yet these efforts are moving forward without a clear estimate of how much local, distributed generation will be used. It is like projecting the needs for telephone service without considering how many cell phones will be used.
As a result, our electricity system is likely being overbuilt — and we are paying far too much for it. We are building our electrical grid as if the likelihood that you or the school nearby will put up solar panels doesn’t exist. That just doesn’t make sense.
The opportunity is to better tailor our electrical grid investments to take advantage of distributed generation and avoid costly investments for delivering power from far away.
A key finding of the report is that the plans for the grid significantly underestimate the amount of distributed generation that will be installed in the region by 2021. The report forecasts 2,855 megawatts of power from distributed sources by that date, compared to the 800 megawatts assumed by the current plan. This means we will have more than three times the distributed generation than previously estimated.
But the grid and the resources required to meet power needs are being planned as if the real contribution from distributed generation won’t even exist. By ignoring the cleanest, local generation we will be overbuilding and overpaying for bigger, more expensive power upgrades than we actually need.
The report is a clarion call that shows how distributed generation can be better integrated into our regional system and as a result lower pollution and costs for everyone.