Enabling distributed, decentralised, diverse energy generation

Traditional power systems rely on centralised generation and transmission with power flowing from large central-station power plants connected by a high-voltage grid to local distribution systems, and from there to customers.

A system that uses central-station power plants is inherently vulnerable: any natural or man-made disruption to the plant, fuel system or to key parts of the network can have wide-reaching consequences for the cities and regions it serves. This vulnerability is mitigated in part by the use of a grid that connects multiple power plants together but can be mitigated further by the addition of microgrids – smaller, distributed generation (DG) systems coupled with energy storage, management and control systems. Microgrids increase the reliability of the power system and its resilience. Microgrids can also facilitate the use of renewables or and can be coupled with heat-distribution networks that use waste heat from the power production process. Making the transition from a centralised grid to one incorporating distributed generation from a variety of power sources will require a systematic approach: interventions must be dynamic and flexible to accommodate changing technology and increasing proportions of renewable power.

The project sets out the key institutional, legal and technical barriers that are slowing or preventing the adoption of distributed energy systems. The research assessed the effectiveness of current and future technologies that will enable a shift from a centralised model to one that includes more diverse, distributed energy sources.

Numerous technologies can be adopted to enable a shift toward a distributed, decentralized and diverse model of energy generation and distribution. It is likely that a variety of techniques will be relevant, depending on local goals and conditions. Some of these technologies already exist, while others are being tested by regional utilities so that they can be introduced and integrated into the existing system without affecting customer reliability.

To be cost effective, the adopted strategies and technology will need to deliver energy savings as well as increased reliability and resilience. Reducing energy consumption should be the number one priority for resilience and new distributed generation.

There will still be a role for the central grid alongside distributed microgrids.

A shift to distributed power generation will require changes to governance, legislation, regulation and incentives to accelerate implementation of the transition.

The findings from this research have been applied on several projects. The technologies addressed on those projects are starting to be planned or installed on infrastructure and buildings projects in the Americas.  Energy model transition requires the involvement of multiple disciplines and the findings from this project are of relevance to a number of diverse stakeholders, such as technical experts, legal experts, economists, policy makers. Understanding the barriers and opportunities identified through this work can help in the preparation and execution of a strategy for a successful transition.

Through this project we developed an approach to projects that takes into account newer, smart and efficient technologies. We gained understanding of the issues and potential benefits associated with them, such as public health, resilience and security. Shifting the industry to a more distributed model requires more than technologies and engineering expertise. The involvement of other services such as financial advisory, community development, stakeholder engagement, and planning are needed too.

The shift towards a distributed, decentralised and diverse model of energy generation requires new approaches to governing and owning energy assets, new policies and standards, new economic models that value externalities, new planning processes and better ways of communicating the information to all stakeholders. This knowledge enables us to better address the needs of clients interested in the possibilities for modifying their energy models and assuring that all key stakeholders are involved.