23 August 2012 – Say what you will about the smart grid, the strongest grid may be no grid at all. The electrical power grid is under pressure as capacity continually increases, and cascading outages or systemic collapse are problems that are increasingly likely. The solution: distributed generation.“By distributing smaller generating capacity at multiple locations, the pitfalls of relying on a single remote source of power are greatly reduced,” Trevor de Vries, MD of  3W Power/AEG Power Solutions, South Africa, says.

“Distributed generation, also called on-site generation, dispersed generation, embedded generation, decentralised generation, decentralised energy or distributed energy, generates electricity from many small energy sources. Distributed generation allows the collection of energy from many sources and provides lower environmental impacts and improved security of supply.”

Historically, the economies of scale offered by central power plants began to fail in the late 1960s and, by the start of the 21st century, central plants could arguably no longer deliver competitively cheap and reliable electricity to more remote customers through the grid. While many avenues have been explored for providing safe and reliable power, the idea that alternative, independent energy producers could sell power back into the grid is a relatively recent concept.

Now, with the advent of cost-effective solar installations as complementary energy generation sources, the concept of distributed generation is becoming increasingly viable. “The right-sized resources, for individual customers, distribution substations, or micro-grids, are able to offer important but little-known economic advantages. Distributed generation reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated right where it is used, and any excess can be fed back into the grid. This provides a financial benefit as well as an environmental benefit,” de Vries says.

He says that for businesses, air-conditioning, server rooms and computer systems alone constitute 60% of all power consumed. Not only is this a massive cost to business, but is not sustainable in the long term. The size of most commercial and industrial buildings makes them ideal for the installation of large scale industrial solar power plants, and by making use of the space available these businesses can not only capture huge amounts of energy, but also sell that energy back into the main grid.

“Distributed generation, and especially renewable based technologies, will continue to gain in popularity due to technology advances, environmental benefits, political support and growing energy awareness. Utilities need to prepare themselves for this increased penetration of renewable energy through the investigation and application of smart grid solutions. By proactively embracing these changes, utilities can begin to shape the myriad of planning and operating approaches that maximise the potential long term benefits of large-scale solar installations to both the utility and its customers,” de Vries says.