Economies of mass production are being touted as an alternative to economies of scale (larger central station power plants) that electric utilities have employed over the last century to supply low-cost electric power. It is posited that mass production can result in low cost electric power generators with acceptable conversion efficiencies that can be installed at the load and be cost competitive with central power delivered to the load (EPRI - Technology Assessment of Residential Power Systems for DG Markets - EPRIsolutions report 1000772).
According to an U.S. DOE report, the transition from large-scale, centralized power generation to small, distributed power generation plants (grid connected or operated independently) has come from the deregulation of electric generation. DG represents approximately 5% of the current electric generating capacity in the U.S. Of course, further grow will depend on how well manufacturers of DG systems do in meeting product pricing and performance targets.
For the period 2005 through 2015 the potential market for DG is forecasted to range from a low of 10,000 to a high of 16,000 MW. But until the capital costs (for fuel cells i.e.) are reduced to $1,000-$1,500/kW, they will have limited market potential (DOE). The market is expected to be good in areas where there is a need for high reliability and quality of supply (i.e. Silicon Valley) or the cost of retail electricity and transmission and distribution are high.
Obviously these studies do not consider possible revolutionary electromagnetic devices that can harness energy from the vacuum and need no fuel. They could provide high quality base-load power, peaking power, backup power, remote power and/or heating and cooling for the end user and benefiting the electric utility too (avoid costly T&D upgrades and high purchase of on-peak power). I wonder what would be the results of such a hypothetical study?
Nevertheless, any development towards promoting DG (even if only microturbines and fuel cells for the time being) is welcomed. For example, the new DG implementation program launched by the City of Los Angeles (LADWP) which expects to have 70 MW of DG in operation by 2010 (microturbines and fuel cells).
Besides the advancements in the power controller/electronics technology to produce utility quality power (frequency and voltage), another R&D spin off from the DG proliferation is the "aggregation" concept. It involves the collection of assorted generating assets and collectively making their output available to the power market. The key to making aggregation work is the ability to dispatch the electricity. Electrotek Concepts uses a web-based power monitoring and management platform to monitor individual site generators and determine and ensure their availability. The generators can be automatically activated if the electric utility or independent system operator (ISO) has an emergency or if less expensive electricity is required. To date the company has aggregated more than 25 MW of backup generation.
Similar experiments are in the works in the northwest. The Bonneville Power Administration's (BPA) "Energy Web 2010 Vision" is viewed as the transition from centralized energy systems that rely on large-scale generators, and one way energy transmission and distribution, to more localized smaller generation and consumer demand management. (Power Engineering - April 2002).
This is probably the result of the fact that the U.S. electric utility R&D spending has finally turned positive.
After a six-year decline, U.S. electric IOUs have demonstrated a return to positive growth in their annual research and development [R&D] expenditures. This is a major conclusion by TECC Group Inc. [TECC] based on its year 2000 analysis of U.S. electric IOU R&D spending.
The average level of R&D expenditure in 2000 was $2.5 million per utility. This is the first significant increase in IOU electric utility R&D spending since 1994," said TECC VP, Steve England. "While this does not define a long-term trend, it does signal a very positive change."
Yes, positive indeed, but if only a fraction of that could be used to seriously examine the claims of some non-conventional researchers, they might save billions in unnecessary spending and turn our civilization and planet from the path of degradation we are currently blindly marching on.