Distributed Generation – Giving Power and Money to the People

The NARUC (National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners) Summer Committee Meetings last week revealed a few sobering projections about our future electrical supply.  First, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) anticipates that the cost of electricity will increase by 50% by 2030 even with use of all possible energy sources from fossil fuels to renewables.  Second, the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) estimates that to meet current trends of increasing electricity consumption, we must spend $2 trillion to build 215.5 gigawatts (GW) of electricity assets by 2030.  These assets include generation plants, transmission lines, and distribution substations and transformers.   That number with twelve zeroes is largely funded through rate increases in our electricity bills – hence the projected 50% increases in electricity prices in the next 20 years. 

Smart Grid technologies can make our electrical grid more efficient and reliable.  We can add more programs to improve energy efficiency and reduce peak electricity requirements.  But we can encourage much greater consumer participation in being part of the solution through policies that promote distributed generation.  Distributed generation (DG) gives consumers the opportunity to reduce their electricity bills and use “home-grown” electricity.

Distributed generation simply means that electricity is produced close to its point of use.  DG doesn’t need new transmission lines (which can face long and expensive legal challenges) and puts an emphasis on locally produced electricity.  DG can be deployed in urban to rural settings and relies on clean, renewable sources of electricity such as solar and wind.  DG turns consumers into prosumers – Alvin Toffler’s term for a producing consumer.  The practice applies to residential and commercial buildings and microgrids. (For more information on microgrids, read here).

DG is a great strategy to address growing electricity consumption and put money in the pockets of consumers.  All states have the authority to encourage and support DG initiatives within their borders, enabled through net metering and interconnection policies.   Net metering lets commercial, industrial, and residential consumers create electricity and sell it back to their local utilities – basically running their meters backwards.  It differs from Feed-in-tariffs (a subject in last week’s blog) in the pricing arrangement for a utility purchase of this DG supply.  FiTs usually deliver improved returns on investments for consumers than net metering, but net metering is better than no policy at all.  Interconnection refers to the technical and legal procedures required to connect your generation source to the utility distribution network. 

There’s an interesting and very readable report called Freeing the Grid that was produced by the Network for New Energy Choices.  This report examines the policies in the fifty states and assigns grades based on assessment of variables that range from ease of interconnection procedures to economic implications.  Residents in California, Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia are lucky – these states receive high marks.  My condolences are extended to residents of Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Your states make it extremely difficult for consumers to become prosumers. 

DG is good for states – it promotes in-state jobs and economic growth.  It helps resolve the looming requirements for additional energy and the need for new centralized generation and transmission assets.  It reduces CO2 emissions through increased use of renewable energy sources.  It helps consumers reduce their electricity bills.  Why wouldn’t every state want to extend the benefits of DG to their citizens?  That’s a great question to pose to your state utility commissioners.