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Devon Manz: When Energy Is Distributed, Everyone Benefits

Distributed power provides the reliable, low-cost electricity needed to support economic growth regardless of weather or infrastructure conditions. Utilities should embrace its potential.

 

In today’s world, access to reliable and low-cost power is critical for economic growth. Yet that goal is getting increasingly challenging, given extreme weather patterns, inadequate infrastructure and the significant time and investment needed to permit and build electrical infrastructure.

At the MIT Energy Conference that begins today, we’re discussing how we can most effectively utilize state and regulatory support to be successful in the 21st century, given our evolving energy needs. The two-day conference is convening experts across industry, government and the scientific community to align on actions that can be taken today to address the energy challenges of tomorrow.

There is no shortage of daunting energy challenges ahead — growing demand for energy, aging infrastructure and more frequent need for emergency power, to name a few. The first step in effectively tackling these problems is to ensure utilities continue to operate and maintain a reliable, low-cost power system. But we must also prioritize and encourage faster, easier and more resilient ways to meet America’s energy demands.

Distributed power — power generated at or near the point of use, on or off the grid — is one way to efficiently and effectively meet our electricity needs. Distributed power puts generation — and power decisions — closer to the end user, giving individuals more options and flexibility to generate and control power when and where it is needed. Natural gas-fired engines and turbines provide additional benefits, too, such as combined heat and power (CHP) systems, or cogeneration. The heat produced can be used to provide useful services — including hot water heating, building heating and/or absorption chilling to cool the air. By consuming both the electricity and the heat, these systems can reach total energy efficiencies of up to 95 percent.

Distributed power can be deployed rapidly, in virtually any location. When a natural disaster strikes and emergency power is needed, the small size, high reliability and flexible power output make distributed power well suited to provide relief. In a natural disaster, these natural gas power systems don’t require liquid fuel delivery or storage, so can continue operating as long as natural gas is available via the existing infrastructure.

CHP users — places like hospitals, manufacturing facilities, commercial and residential buildings — are typically not in the business of producing power. To realize the full potential of distributed power and CHP, they need the support of equipment suppliers, the local utility and engineering firms that design and build these systems. Globally, CHP has had wider adoption and support from governments, including those of Indonesia and Mexico. Europe, especially Germany, has been leading the way, in implementing CHP for cleaner and more efficient power solutions — and users are seeing the benefits.

Not only is CHP a win for the users, but it’s also a win for utilities — especially those in large urban centers or that need to invest in and upgrade their infrastructure. CHP systems can provide these utilities with the necessary generation capacity to alleviate transmission and distribution constraints, and may even address the utility’s potential inability to build new generation to keep up with load growth.

The U.S. power system has evolved into a model where utilities are producers and the rest of us are consumers. Growth in CHP is a win/win — consumers can generate reliable and low-cost power and heat, while the utilities can gain generation sources at key congestion nodes, thereby deferring the need for new power plants and transmission and distribution lines. Enabling this requires the alignment of vision and action, as well as overcoming some of the impediments — such as standardized, fast-track permitting for CHP users — and sharing the benefits of these systems among the utilities and the CHP users.

It’s important to embrace opportunities like today’s MIT Energy Conference to ensure we all play a part in solving tomorrow’s energy challenges — including utilities, governments and regulators. If we work together, we have the opportunity to secure our nation’s energy future.

(Top GIF: Video of how GE’s Distributed Power technologies helped the rebuilding process in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines)

Devon Manz is a Marketing Director for GE Power & Water’s Distributed Power business.

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