Monday, January 25, 2016

Distributed Generation is Part of the Story, but it is Not the End

By Ben Swerdlow, GEI Policy Extern

For years there has been a discussion regarding the benefits of the distributed generation (DG) of electricity, but I don’t think the concept of DG, where energy is produced locally by sustainable energy sources, should be limited to electricity alone. As technology has become both more affordable and more efficient we should transition to a future where cities not only produce a portion of their own electricity, but also their own consumer products and food. DG as a concept must encompass more than just the generation of energy to ultimately benefit not only how our cities use energy, but how efficiently they use it as well. After all, the benefit of the concept of “distributed” generation or production doesn’t end with electricity, as the same principals are present in the production and generation of various other products.

Distributed generation is often considered to provide several benefits. For example, the amount of electricity lost to transmission can be decreased significantly based on the US Energy Information Administration's report that 6% of electricity is lost during transmission and distribution. Therefore, by generating energy on a smaller scale closer to the community, we can save not only on the costs of transmission, but losses due to that transmission, thereby making the process more efficient. Another benefit of DG is that it can significantly decrease the area required to produce the electricity by enabling land to generate electricity in tandem with other uses. For example, in the case of urban solar, the land used for solar PV was already being used for another purpose, but is now used more efficiently. Whereas without DG buildings and roads only served one purpose, they can now also produce electricity.

Finally, DG may increase reliability across the grid in the case where there are microgrids and local energy generators like solar. By having a DG system in place, a community that suffers a power loss can sustain itself until the larger system function can be restored. Similarly, this benefit may be derived by having energy storage facilities located within the community.

As significant as these benefits are, it is also important to understand that the concept of distributed production can go much further to apply to consumer products. For example, with 3D printing technology becoming more efficient and accurate, products can be produced not only domestically but locally. Just as DG decreases “transmission” or transportation costs, distributed production of consumer products also increases the efficiency of the production process and reduces a product’s carbon footprint. There is also a greater reliability in producing products locally, because there is less reliance on production from outside areas.

The benefits from DG also apply to the indoor production of fruits and vegetables by way of aeroponics. Under this system, transportation costs are decreased significantly as crops can be produced closer to the location where they are consumed, often within city limits. The amount of area required to grow crops is also significantly reduced because crops can be stacked vertically and can occupy existing warehouses or buildings. As for increasing reliability, aeroponically grown crops can be produced every day of the year, no matter the weather outside. Additionally, aeroponics is significantly more efficient than traditional agriculture, with aeroponics systems on average using 98% less water, 60% less fertilizer, and 100% less pesticide, and in the case of tomatoes, there are over three times as many harvest cycles. This allows crops to be produced in nearly any location, and considering that 80% of the nation’s water is used in agriculture, aeroponics can drastically decrease water usage.

While DG as a concept doesn’t solve all of our energy problems, it does promote change that can significantly benefit the entire system. By fully utilizing the concept of DG, it is possible for us to decrease transportation costs, increase efficiency and reliability, and promote an energy future that relies more on communities. Ultimately, it isn’t just how we produce energy, it’s also how we use it, and by building a greater reliance on communities we can use energy more efficiently.

1 comment: