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Reflections on Decentralised Energy Systems

[ Rob Hopkins, editor of the influencial Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan recently attended a Community Renewables course at Centre for Alernative Techology (CAT) in North Wales. His reflections on decentralised electricity systems are relevant to those considering local energy security. -AF ]

One of the most useful things about the Community Renewables course at CAT was that I got to bounce some of my ideas off the people there. Clearly I don’t have a strong background in community renewables, being more of a permaculture and plants kinda guy, and community renewables are clearly a key part of a relocalisation process. I will look at this below, firstly setting out what was my thinking prior to the course, then the reservations that the course leaders raised about that, and finally the revised version of how I am now thinking that all of this might work. This is still, of course, work in progress and an evolving process, but I offer it here in the hope that people not so advanced in thinking this process through might find it useful, and people more advanced will email in and tell me where it is still going wrong.

My Original Concept.

My original idea was that one of the keys to relocalisation is to decentralise energy grids, as many others are also arguing. I felt that the key was to set up an ESCo (an Energy Services Company) which would raise finds from within and beyond the community in the form of a share option like some community wind projects have done, and use that, combined with Government and other funding, to incrementally take parts of the town out of the grid and onto their own grids. This would offer a way of keeping local money cycling within the community and would provide something tangible with which to back a complementary currency.

The Course Teachers’ Reservations.

Some of the teachers were very doubtful about the idea of decentralised energy systems. They argued that the Grid is very important as a part of renewable energy systems, allowing renewable projects to generate an income and obviating the need for battery storage. They doubted that the Grid would be imperilled by energy shortages (which I would dispute), and that the regulatory hurdles to decentralised energy are at present too high. One of the key problems with the decentralised approaches is that the big thing in terms of energy supply is choice. If you take a cluster of houses out of the grid then it makes it impossible for people to have a choice of providers. There is, apparently, a thing called the 28 Day Rule, which states that everyone should be free to change their energy provider within 28 days if they so choose. If people want to switch to a different provider they no longer can if they are disconnected from the grid. They argued that the key is to build renewable capacity feeding into the grid, and that decentralised energy is, at present, almost impossible to do in terms of regulation.

My Revised Thinking.

windI still hold that ultimately decentralised power grids will be the only realistic option. There are concerns for instance that in the UK, where around 40% of national power generation is made with natural gas, that if there are significant gas shortages (a distinct possibility) then the Grid becomes ineffective, and all the other things feeding into it become redundant.

There is also the point that there is no point starting to build a decentralised power grid that aims to meet peoples energy needs when those renewables will only ever be able to meet 40% of current demand, and the other 60% has to come from conservation. It is important that the demand reduction measures take place first, a huge task in itself. It is also important to note that despite the regulatory barriers, if we wait until they are lifted, we won’t have left sufficient time to install the necessary hardware and capacity that we will need.

I am therefore now thinking that perhaps the way to proceed is to form an ESCO, and set up an investment mechanism whereby people can invest in community renewables. This has been done successfully at CAT, West Mill, Baywind and others. This would then start to put into and around the town a number of renewable energy installations, mostly wind, pv and hydro. These would need grant aid to make them feasible, but such grants are increasingly available.

Once installed, the energy generated would be sold to the grid and the income would go towards energy efficiency measures in the town. This could go on for say 10 years, installing capacity and using it to fund energy efficiency. The renewables would be installed in such a way that that at some point, when the regulatory framework changed (ie. after a winter of powercuts!) it would then be possible to, in effect, turn the renewables capacity ‘inwards’, onto a localised grid.

This looks to me to be an approach that works within the existing reality but which allows for the transition to the new one. The installation of new capacity, using the current mechanisms to generate funds for the essential energy conservation measures while also building the needed infrastructure for localisation could be a good way to go. I’m sure that all this will be turned on its head after I attend a one day conference at Exeter University on June 7th called “Setting Up and Implementing Low Carbon Energy Projects in Devon” which will explore the practicalities of setting up and operating ESCOs. For more information click here, ESCO Conference. I’ll keep you posted as the thoughts develop!

Chris Vernon of The Oil Drum UK comments:

I think the grid is key going forward and it can still carry out a useful function during energy shortages. Look at parts of the world where demand significantly outstrips supply, a grid is still used for distribution and rationing by time.

The difficulty of not having a large grid is huge. If any sort of variable power source is used (solar, wind, marine etc) then either local energy is needed or variability accepted. The grid allows the inherent variability to be averaged out across a larger area, lessening the absolute variability for a given user and lessening the supply margin needed compared with using a local system.

I think embedded, locally owned generation infrastructure is a must going forward but that generation infrastructure should also be connected with a high capacity grid.

Editorial Notes: There are more comments at the original. See also this new report entitled Distributed Generation Overview: Current Status and Challenges (large PDF) by Vu Van Thong and Ronnie Belhams published in the International Review of Electrical Engineering. -AF

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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