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Power to the People! It’s Boom Time for Distributed Power

December 26, 2014
A whisky distillery in Scotland uses mash residue to power its factory and produce steam for distilling while a brewery in Germany uses its own waste water to generate the electricity, steam and hot water needed to make its products. Elsewhere, tree bark, sewage sludge and even rubbish from landfill are all turning into one thing: power.

More and more companies are using waste products for power generation, thanks to the growth of distributed power.

Distributed power is the generation of power at or near the point of use. It includes technologies that supply both electrical and mechanical power to move liquids (such as oil) and objects (such as boats and trains). It has the potential to produce power for use on site, but any extra can even be pumped out to the grid. It’s greener, it’s efficient and it can produce backup power when intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar aren’t delivering.

The need for distributed power is growing rapidly. Populations are ballooning, and with them the drive towards prosperity. Research shows that increasing electricity use is connected with growing income, education and health, so we need more and more reliable sources of power that don’t put the earth’s resources under as much strain.

Thankfully, distributed power has the potential to grow along with demand. According to GE figures, distributed power capacity additions will grow nearly 40 percent faster than global power demand. By 2020, investment in distributed power technology will rise from $150 billion to $206 billion. GE has responded to this potential by launching a new distributed power business and announcing $1.4 billion of investment globally to help meet the demand for on-site power.

A number of factors have combined to bring about the sudden interest in this type of power.

Firstly, distributed power is now a much more viable option. The technology is smaller, more efficient, and cheaper than ever, so there are more companies than ever considering it. Distributed power can also be rolled out quicker and with less risk than large power plants. Users can also scale up quickly. So it’s easy to see why there’s a lot going for distributed energy. Sure, there will always be a need for large centralised power stations but the decentralisation movement is in full effect.

There’s also a policy reason: Europe is committed to the 2020 environment goals, and distributed power can help the region attain them. Kerstin Lienbacher, from GE’s Distributed Power, says, “Europe is a diverse market but everything that is done relating to energy is driven by the 2020 goals. In countries such as Germany, there are lots of biogas farmers that recently have installed or seek to install biogas engines due to the incentives they receive. District heat and CHP in general are big themes due to the fact that there are renewables in the market — wind and solar. If the wind blows and the sun shines, you don’t need that much electricity from gas turbines or gas engines. But if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, you need power quickly to restore the balance and address that lack of electricity that is needed.

“Gas engines can come onto the grid fairly quickly to balance that out. Renewable backup power is a big thing not only in Germany but in the UK and France as well.”

GE’s Jenbacher engines are centre stage in the field of distributed power. This engine converts natural gas or biogas from a wide range of sources into electricity. The engines range from 250kW to 9.5MW, with those at the higher end able to produce power and heat for 18,500 homes.

Lienbacher said, “In Germany you have the big coal plants that are up and running all the time but they have high levels of CO2 emissions so the government is seeking to get rid of them. Gas turbines are an alternative. The efficiency of coal plants isn’t particularly high whereas gas engines can give up to 100% efficiency, meaning all of the energy that goes into the engine is converted into electricity or power. That’s one of the biggest benefits.”

GE has said that globally we are entering an Age of Gas and has released a report to that effect. GE’s research names distributed power as an important component in the energy mix, with the growth of natural gas being a huge catalyst. GE’s founder Thomas Edison who built the first power plant in 1882 and the progression towards a democratised power supply has been in action ever since.

Top GIF: Video of GE Jenbacher engine

This piece originally appeared in GE Reports Europe.