Small is Beautiful
Distributed renewable energy comes in small bites, but it makes mouthfuls -- gigawatts -- of renewable energy capacity. Americans tend to think big, but it is countries that built small that are hitting big renewable energy targets.
Take Germany. In 2009, it installed 3,000 megawatts (MW) of solar PV, more than three times all the solar PV installed in the U.S., ever.
Over 80 percent was installed on rooftops.
Distributed wind power scales, as well.
Of Germany's 27,000 megawatts of wind power projects (third most in the world and most per capita), nearly 90 percent are smaller than 20 megawatts, with most between 1 and 5 megawatts.
The small projects are also a significant portion of total capacity, with 20 MW and under wind projects contributing half of total wind power capacity.
Germany’s clean energy policy doesn’t just make mountains out of molehill-sized distributed wind and solar projects, it spreads the economic benefits around. Over half of the country’s 43,000 MW of renewable power are owned by individuals or farmers. The chart is from Germany's Renewable Energy Agency (terms translated by Google):
There's nothing inherently wrong with seeking big numbers for renewable energy, but it's shortsighted to assume that only big projects add up. And American policy for renewable energy can do more and get more with a focus on distributed energy.
This is part of a series on distributed renewable energy posted to Renewable Energy World. It originally appeared on Energy Self-Reliant States, a resource of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's New Rules Project.
Contact John Farrell at firstname.lastname@example.org, find more content at energyselfreliantstates.org or follow @johnffarrell on Twitter
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This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.
Add Your Comment 10 Reader Comments
1 of 10
February 28, 2011
Americans think BIG IS BOUNTIFUL while developing countries think SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL. Small distributed power will add up quickly rather than waiting for large power production. After all 1+1+1+ ........
leads to infinity.
2 of 10
March 2, 2011
Distributed projects also reduce the need for new transmission, which may take decades to permit in the US. In a hybrid micro-grid configuration, they can also increase reliability in a way that centralized projects never can. We are starting to focus our future efforts with the HOMER software (www.homerenergy.com) on micro-grids for exactly these reasons.
Peter Lilienthal, Ph.D.
3 of 10
March 2, 2011
So much roofing surface area, so little time.
Combine energy generation and energy efficiency, combine daylighting and solar thermal and PV and suddenly we're talking about the real economy.
The big numbers are in low profile buildings, the big boxes. No need to tear up the desert and incur transmission losses.
4 of 10
March 2, 2011
Good to see people are starting to think straight thanks to European leadership.
I still think the biggest impedance to solar in North America is it's UGLY and architects are reluctant to use PV/thermal solar because it detracts from what they are trying to attain, which is asthetic appeal.
If I may mount my soap box one more time The manufactures of solar pannels need to make products that are compatable with construction methods so that they can be intigrated into the structure, not just an add on.
A solar PV pannel could be integrated into a wood frame truss sustem to provide a water proof structural component and the heat can further be removed from the back to increase the efficiency and provide hot water.
I know its not difficult as I have 4/5 of a design in my head. My bets would say such modular design improvements could increase sales three fold and finally give designers and architects something to work with.
This slight rant is presented to you by a frustrated builder/designer/solar advocate who often hears the grumblings of architects about ugly solar they do not want to add to their problematic, inefficient, lack of leadership buildings
5 of 10
March 2, 2011
We all know this is the answer, and we all know what's the problem.
Most of our utilities are publicly held monopolies. The only way to make money for investors is to increase the number of users, increase price, and sell more power to the existing users. They can not control
(attract) people moving to their serving area, as monopolies they can't price their product as they wish; so there is only one way to "increase" sales. And promoting energy savings goes against stockholders' interest; so is supporting politicians that push for solar residential rebates or credits.
6 of 10
March 2, 2011
Monopoly utilities will try to use the "Smart Gid" concept and the concept of "Smart Meters" to put a firewall up between users of DG and their profits but this won't keep DG from taking a larger and larger share of the power market.
8 of 10
March 2, 2011
Lovely. So individuals can make a difference! Who knew. The big incumbents have big bank accounts, well developed infrastructure and more than a few politicians in their back pocket. What they don't have is maneuverability. Don't expect them to come up with anything, anymore than whalers could think of coal gas or coal gas producers could think of electricity. As someone on ted.com remarks, the whalers ran out of customers before they ran out of whales. Waking up to a new day has never been the forte of sleeping giants of industry.
Even the big customers of big electricity have a similar inertia:
there's just not enough Walmart to go around, but then there is at least Walmart and Starbucks and others, even GM and Oakland airport, etc. so it's not hopeless at that level, just slow. At one time it was a mantra amongst corporate managers that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" but where are they now? "nobody ever got fired for buying BlackBerry"??
I currently spend $45 per month buying LED lighting for my home. Why?
Because I understand economy of scale and want to contribute my widow's mite to the cause. Oh, and the light's better and the ROI is respectable and growing more respectable every day as my rates keep going up.
9 of 10
March 2, 2011
Attractiveness is largely culturally determined. It may not make perfect sense for Portland to have a lot of solar. Famous for trees and rain, Stumptown nonetheless sports a lot of panels.
While architects in general are not working, the ones doing energy and resource upgrades are doing better, and at least one, famous for her solar work, is busy.
If people want distributed energy, they will make it happen.
The major utilities here seem to get that they will just have to go with what people want. One utility seems more on board than the others. I have heard the word de-coupling from utility workers themselves, in public.
Some of the local media have noted it when one utility seems more sullen than another. It makes the laggard seem culturally insensitive.
There are so many laid-off people already, the newly laid off could join a band, show art in a coffee shop, start a food cart, or invent a new beer flavor. Maybe our utility guys are more laid back about possible reductions in force from their day jobs.
An engineer could put a custom panel on his food cart, and find the best light spot each day.
Obstacles to distributed generation will get ground down over time.
Things can't go to scale with one-size-fits-all, on the same schedule, but buzz will quicken, and micro-climate cohorts will brainstorm and fine-tune. We will have competing clearing houses, to track details.
10 of 10
March 3, 2011
It would be even bigger if the Utilities in our area didn't cut their incentives. They also spend a lot on big projects so the funds run low even fatser.
They also don't have the FIT Fed In Tarrif like Germany where they pay the real value of Peak Time of Day ,clean , renewable energy.
About: John Farrell is a senior researcher on the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
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