Introduction to Distributed Energy

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By Beatriz Rivela, Fausto Paulino Washima et al.:

"Although different definitions of distributed energy generation exist (Gómez, 2008), the general concept of distributed energy emphasises small-scale generation, consumer accessibility and end-user participation. This is by no means a new concept. Since the 1970s, due to the oil crisis and the realisation of the gravity of the effects of environmental degradation, the concept of distributed energy has been receiving increasingly more attention.

Furthermore, technological innovations, increased transportation and distribution costs, the changing economic climate, climate change concerns, and, in some contexts, the emergence of regulatory standards, have reinforced interest in distributed energy infrastructures. Nowadays, the importance of distributed energy systems is indisputable, going well beyond the provision of energy to remote communities.[6] In essence, the paradigm shift in the energy system implies a change in our way of thinking and acting, thereby enabling our communities to propose, design, implement and operate their own infrastructures in a manner that is adapted to the particular character of their environment.

The generation of distributed energy puts special emphasis on demand management and its constant interaction with renewable supply (Kempener et al., 2013). This demand management requires an understanding of the relevant territorial and spatial factors and an identification of who will consume the energy and how it will be consumed in different areas of the territory, as well as of the interplay between different types of energy consumption and production (Ariza-Montobbio et al., 2014). In short, distributed energy promotes a closer connection between energy generation and consumption (Alanne and Saari, 2006). Consequently, this implies a territorial approach to energy, based on the use of geo-referenced information about available renewable resources and consumer dynamics. This new paradigm of planning and organisation of energy information suggests to think about energy efficiency not only from a technological point of view, but also from a socio-structural point of view. Changes in the geographical distribution of homes and workplaces, as well as in cultural practices and in the use of time associated with energy consumption can enable significant reductions in the consumption of energy. An example of this consists of the “collectivisation/socialisation of consumption” achieved through the collective use of household appliances, industrial processes, public transport and so on.

The social effect of distributed energy depends on, among other factors, the scale of production technologies. At the municipal and city level, changing the energy model to a cooperative energy system could result in the development of projects of up to 100kW of electricity generation (based on solar photovoltaic, grid-connected, low-voltage electricity). At the neighborhood level, solar roofs on houses connected to the local power grid can generate 10kW. In the case of rural areas, autonomous power systems with capacities up to 15kW can be installed in the grid, based on solar photovoltaic, small wind or small hydro power. Micro-hydro technology, in particular, is one of the most economical, clean and safe choices for rural electrification if the appropriate technologies are chosen and proper planning of its implementation, operation and maintenance is carried out. There are many successful micro-hydro projects in developing countries, which indicate the adaptability of micro-hydro technology to local conditions, its sustainability, and its contribution to local community development.

Moreover, non-electrical renewable resources, such as low-temperature solar heat, can be used to meet thermal requirements, such as boiling water for sanitation. In rural areas, one can use biogas produced from the anaerobic digestion of livestock and waste. This can also be used for cooking food. The use of these technologies favours the development of groups of producers and consumers known as “prosumers”. When citizens, families and communities use renewable technologies to produce some of the energy that they consume, they become aware of the environmental, economic and social effects of the energy system: The system of energy production no longer remains a black box. In this sense, energy consumers/producers can be made aware of the real costs of energy and thus reduce their consumption through the adoption of cost-saving and efficiency measures. Additionally, the participation of energy users in its production improves the energy planning process, making it responsive to the needs of the users, especially at the community and municipal level. This bottom-up, participatory process leads to a democratisation of energy planning that can satisfy the social, economic and cultural needs of communities without destroying the environment." (