Your home + solar panels = distributed generation

If you’ve ever seen solar panels on the rooftop of a home or business, you were looking at “distributed generation.”

And it’s a safe bet you’ll be seeing more of it.

Distributed generation means generating electricity at or near the location where it is used. It is cheaper than conventional, centralized generation because it avoids costs of building transmission lines and the infrastructure needed to get the electricity to homes and businesses. Also, distributed generation lets consumers control their own power supplies.

Technological advances are making renewable energy resources — especially solar and wind — the cleanest, most efficient and increasingly affordable methods of power generation.

The traditional way to distribute electricity requires a large power-generation facility, typically a coal-fired, gas or nuclear power plant located well outside the city, and a network of high-voltage transmission lines that transfer electricity long distances, from power stations to consumers. The facilities — power stations, substations, electricity transmission lines and towers — are expensive to build and maintain. And a lot of it is old and inefficient.

Distributed energy generation, on the other hand, is local. Not as much infrastructure is required after initial installation of power generators. And it is clean, if the right resources are used.

Infographic illustrating differences between centralized and distributed generation of electric power (State Dept./Julia Maruszewski)

(State Dept./Julia Maruszewski)

Where does the energy come from?

The sun, wind, water, the earth’s own heat (geothermal) and even waste (biomass) are all clean energy resources fit for distributed generation.

Distributed generation may occur on a small scale at individual homes and buildings, or on a slightly larger scale using wind turbines and solar arrays a utility company positions around a community. Many utility companies now prioritize integrating distributed energy from small- and medium-scale renewable sources into their existing energy framework.

These companies are adapting to electricity flowing from numerous generation points, rather than just one central site. They have to anticipate when they’ll be able to draw on power sources that are predictably active at certain times of day or season — like solar and wind.