Distributed generation: wave of the future

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 23 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 4:01 am in
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By Don Laughlin

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In Iowa, electricity is generated by very large, concentrated generating stations powered by coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. Some is coming from wind farms spread over many acres of farm land.

We should consider another way to generate our power. Distributed generation is a system whereby many small sets of photovoltaic panels, on thousands of roofs, generate electricity and feed it into a local, state or national grid. It largely is used near where it is generated, thus eliminating the need for many high voltage transmission lines.

I am a distributed generation customer. I have 2.75 kilowatts of photovoltaic (solar) panels on my roof. I sell to and buy from MidAmerican Energy. It is a compatible and mutually beneficial arrangement. It is clean energy with no carbon footprint in the production.

The most important reasons to support distributed generation are practical and environmental reasons. Looking far ahead, when fossil fuels are depleted, civilization will be forced to rely on renewable energy. The question to be asked: Are we close enough to that time that we seriously should be pursuing renewable energy? I think we are.

It is clear that our current consumption rate eventually will deplete our sources of fossil oil and gas deposits. They will not deplete suddenly, but rather will become increasingly expensive and difficult to tap. Increasing costs eventually will reach, and exceed, the cost of renewable energy.

We have, for many decades, based our civilization on the proposition that we will have petroleum fuels forever. But even now, we use extreme technologies to extract oil and gas — technologies which are very damaging to the environment. Recently, we have experienced a plethora of accidents in the process of transporting crude oil across our country. Can we afford, and do we need, to sacrifice safe, clean water for transportation fuel?

Distributed generation is an economically and environmentally sound, socially acceptable and “doable” way to provide ourselves with electricity. But DG is a legitimate threat to the current utilities business plan.

The concept of central generating plants first was developed by Thomas Edison in 1882 to furnish power to light his new bulb on a massive scale. Power plants of the 21st century are relics of this model.

I can conceive of modern energy plants that are totally different. Imagine a city or a county that generates its own power and has no transmission lines either in or out. This would entail storage, as wind and sun are not always available 24/7, but highly efficient batteries are on the horizon. A small generator, powered with locally grown and processed biofuel, could fill the nighttime and no-wind gaps. The necessary utility would be a “distribution company.” It would make its money by wheeling power from those who have excess to those who do not.

It would be an important institution for the management of the storage and backup system and the maintenance of the localized grid. With its expertise and equipment, it would be a vital link in keeping the lights on.

This fantasy does not offer a solution to all the environmental and economic problems we face, but perhaps it can spark new, creative thinking that will.

DG should be supported as a beginning toward the new, 21st century sustainable society.

DG should be a wave of the future.

Don Laughlin of Iowa City is a retired biomedical engineer. Comments: laugh@avalon.net

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