Maybe the key area to study is neither the advantages of new, green and efficient distributed generation technologies; nor the drawbacks of old centralized plant – but of the energy distribution systems that carry remotely generated power to distributed consumers.
The UK’s Energy Technologies Institute (ETI – a public-private between the UK government and some global energy/engineering companies including Rolls-Royce and Caterpillar) is currently suggesting that decisions need to be made about which UK energy networks to build, develop, maintain or [even] decommission. ‘Energy is rarely created where it is consumed, so networks play an important role transporting energy to where it is required. Whole energy system thinking is therefore critical because the challenge is knowing where, when and how to enhance and adapt the UK’s energy networks,’ it says.
Yet todays networks – electricity transmission and distribution and, in the UK, gas distribution – evolved over time and: ‘were largely engineered to address a different set of operational challenges to those the country now faces.’ In the case of electricity this used to be getting electricity to flow in one direction from power stations located on coal fields or remote coastal sites for nuclear plants, to cities and other users.
Of course the growth of decentralized generation, two-way power flows and, latterly smart grids and energy storage, is changing all that. And clearly the growth of decentralized generation can only go so far – countries which already have a national power grid will continue to use this resource alongside local generation. As the ETI says: ‘Although a lot of focus is placed upon how to decarbonize energy generation and heating in buildings, a number of challenges must be overcome in how energy is distributed and stored if this is to be done in the most efficient way.’
Operators of energy grids have been forced to face the future of networks rather sooner than most. Steve Holliday, until recently the CEO of the UK’s National Grid said a couple years ago that: ‘the world is clearly moving towards much more distributed electricity production and towards microgrids. The pace of that development is uncertain… but the direction is clear.’
We will still have large power grids, added Holliday, but operators will be the stable long-term business around which new patterns of generation, and business models, are emerging.