People who have been following the solar power industry have been excited at the stream of technological breakthroughs that are making solar competitive and, potentially, cheaper than energy derived from fossil fuels. From ever more efficient photovoltaic cells to new methods of electricity storage, solar technology is proceeding apace.
However, the really big breakthrough, which isn’t being talked about, but which, when combined with solar, will be as profound as when the telephone monopoly was breaking up, is a concept called the distributive grid. The idea, according to the Department of Energy, is that instead of having a few centralized power plants that are hooked up to utility customers by long transmission lines, a distributive grid would have a myriad of small energy plants sited closer to the customers that they service.
These kinds of small power stations could include fossil fuel plants running on natural gas, for example. But they would more likely be renewable energy plants, including photovoltaic arrays, wind turbines, and fuel cells, as well as a variety of energy storage devices such as batteries. According to Forbes, Maine has become the first state of the union to go full-bore into allowing a distributed grid by permitting a company that is not a utility to set up a distributed grid that will run as a supplement to the regular power grid. If the experiment in Maine works, it could become a model for similar arrangements across the country, allowing solar and other renewable power companies to get into the power distribution business.
Having more than one vendor running a grid, one of them being a distributive energy company, has a number of advantages over the more traditional electrical power grid.
First, a distributive grid accomplishes flexibility during peak power demand periods. Everyone knows that summer, when the heat of the day causes customers to turn on their air conditioners full blast, causes an uptick in power demand. With a distributive system, more of the small power stations can be brought online near the areas where the demand is greatest, to provide more electricity. During off-peak times, the same power stations can be used to fill up electrical storage systems for use later.
The distributive power grid increases reliability and cuts down on blackouts and brownouts. Many people have experienced rolling blackouts during heatwaves in which the power grid has to be turned off in alternating areas when the demand becomes too high. A distributive grid makes resorting to rolling blackouts far less likely.
As a bonus, the distributive grid provides a great deal more energy efficiency than does a traditional grid. If power is not needed during off-peak hours, it will not be generated. Customers will have a greater economic incentive to pursue energy efficiency as a result. Because a distributive grid is decentralized, it is less likely to go down due to inclement weather or cyber-attack. Parts of the distributive grid that are unaffected can take up the slack while the parts that were taken down are repaired and brought back online.
In theory, a distributive grid provider can create competition with a more traditional utility. A distributive grid company, especially one that provides a “behind the meter” service (i.e. rooftop solar panels) can also provide an incentive for customers to conserve energy through price signals. Thus far, utilities in Maine are resisting this rate structure, asking state regulators to enact a system of fixed rates for all utility customers that will make distributive grid companies less competitive and protect their investment in the traditional grid and centralized power plant system that has been the norm for over a century. It is a classic case of the old trying to fight off the new to resist change from a state of affairs the big utility companies has become comfortable with.