As our society continues to become more wired, the impact of a sudden power outage – such as what occurred in India in early August – becomes increasingly severe and disruptive. With more and more businesses – including mission critical facilities like hospitals, military bases, and water treatment plants – reliant upon access to large amounts of electricity and the Internet, blackouts can significantly damage a country’s economy, public health and safety.
At the same time, there are regions of the world – particularly in emerging nations – where entire villages remain without access to power because it is simply too expensive to build the infrastructure needed to transport electricity to the rural areas. According to a 2010 International Energy Agency report, the lack of access to electricity hinders social and economic development and exacerbates major health problems such as hunger, sanitation and access to clean water. As a recent New York Times headline simply put it, energy access is vital to abolishing the worst poverty in the world.
A solution to both of these problems – increasing vulnerability to a power outage in developed areas and lack of access to electricity in developing areas – can be found in distributed generation. Traditionally, electricity is generated in large, centralized facilities, and for the most part these facilities run on fossil fuels. Distributed generation instead allows electricity to be generated from many small, de-centralized sources, such as rooftop solar or a small solar farm.
For developed areas, this method of electricity generation offers far greater grid security than traditional generation in centralized facilities. Generating power through several independent generation stations rather than a handful of major power plants dramatically decreases the impact of one power plant unexpectedly shutting down. The presence of several generation stations allows some to ramp up their production to account for the unexpected loss of others, keeping the grid stable even as power generation fluctuates.
For areas currently without access to electricity, distributed generation facilities bypass the onerous cost of developing infrastructure to transport electricity long distances from enormous power plants and delivers the power they so badly need.
The technology to both develop power grids using more and more distributed generation and integrate distributed generation into large electric grids is getting more advanced each year. Companies are already developing solar-powered thermal power plants designed specifically for off-grid applications and solar community cooking systems to reduce fossil fuels use. Others are supporting the development of solar-powered toilets that require no running water and produce no pollutants.
Other solutions include local wind generators – small wind turbines – that can power homes and small businesses. And as the use of home-based solar panels increases, each individual household or business will create more and more of its own electricity, increasing energy security, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and netting an economic benefit.
As nations overhaul their grids in response to the recent blackout in India and work to provide electricity access to their most remote areas, distributed generation should be part of the solution.
By Badal Shah