Small is beautiful - even in the US
The energy battleground today is not one where fossil fuels and renewable energy sources fight for supremacy; but between a highly-centralized approach, with giant generation plant connected to its loads via long-distance transmission lines, and at least a partial dependence on a decentralized, local approach with smaller plant serving adjacent energy loads.
This is particularly true for larger countries where transmission distances can be huge. I have been struck by views put forward by two US-based commentators who, while from different ends of the decentralized energy world, agree that local energy is beginning to win some battles.
Rob Thornton runs the International District Energy Association and believes that the US is already entering a new age of smaller-scale, more nimble and cleaner local energy assets. Despite the advocacy efforts of the very powerful fossil-fuelled utilities lobby, he sees distributed generation making headway in heat-intensive industrial sectors; in cities where planners and economists are seeking higher quality lifestyles; and in a sector he labels ‘MUSH’ – municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals, all traditional areas for CHP and district energy.
Meanwhile, Dick Munson leads on public affairs for Recycled Energy Development, which mainly supplies CHP plants to industrial clients. He majors on the considerable benefits that locally-generated power delivers to electricity system operators in unused line capacity and reduced transmission losses, all without any reward to the local generator. But he also points to wind and large-scale solar lobbyists now seeking new transmission corridors to connect to, all to be paid for by someone else. Centralized generation will continue to have an important role, of course: it works very well for continuous supply and load balancing purposes and, with smart grid technology, the mixture of centralized and local systems will get better.
Both point to the 12% of total US electricity already generated by 80 GW of CHP plant. The US federal government now plans a 50% increase in installed capacity over the next few years, with better policy coordination and assistance to states. Investment in new distributed plant would be encouraged by a greater emphasis on meeting urban heat loads with local CHP, says Thornton, and by rewarding decentralized power generators for the services they supply, adds Munson.
This isn’t just an American game; indeed many, particularly in Europe, would claim to be way ahead of efforts to decentralize energy in North America. In fact, the game is changing on both sides of the pond, with efficient, responsive and local energy being preferred to large, transmission-dependent power systems.