distributed generation: moving forward

This post is part two of a special two-part series by SF2011 Fellow Whitney Ramos. Whitney served her Fellowship in the Public Utilities Commission.

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by Whitney Ramos, SF2011

As I mentioned in Part 1, I highly support renewable distributed generation. It turns out that Governor Jerry Brown does too. He set a target for California to develop 12,000 megawatts of renewable localized electricity generation by 2020. Personally, I can imagine potential for a huge variety of fascinating DG to help reach that goal. Imagine your gym (or the gym you pass on your way home, but never quite got around to joining) has half the exercise bikes and elliptical machines hooked up to tiny generators. Some patrons may appreciate that these machines provide a more difficult workout, because the generators create more resistance. But that’s a positive by-product of the main benefit. A back of the envelope calculation indicates that 3 people going a moderate pace on these bicycles could generate 200 watts, enough to run the average LCD television the exercisers are watching while they work out. In fact, there is a music festival held in San Francisco, the Bicycle Music Festival, powered entirely by bicycles hooked up to generators.

Another idea (though the technology isn’t there yet) is to take advantage of the artificial wind tunnels created by tall buildings located in San Francisco and other cities. Have you ever walked down Central Market Street on a windy day? There’s certainly some power there.

DG offers exciting possibilities. Long term, what about upgrading the grid (or building initially, in developing cities) to be better able to hook up and take advantage of DG? I went to a conference called West Coast Green late last year, which was about the Built Environment. One speaker mentioned a large commercial building that included a solar array. During weekends the solar panels would generate more electricity than the building would use. This was a prime opportunity for a company, which had already invested in renewable energy, to both add a revenue stream and provide the community with clean energy two days a week. Unfortunately, the local grid was technically incapable of absorbing the excess solar generation. The speaker reported that the solar system owner had to create a new technology to turn off the solar panels’ generation. The panels generate 29% less than they could. Given the cost of the investment and potential revenue from selling excess green electricity to the Utility Company, it is clear this is an inefficient outcome. In this case, the system owner could not take full advantage of their investment due to the grid’s technical limitations. In the future, this wastefulness could be avoided if distribution grids were designed for optimal DG connectivity.

Significantly upgrading the distribution grid for this purpose would require long term planning and buy-in from all parties involved, particularly distribution utilities. I’m not sure that it could happen in the real world or when it would, but the potential is there. Especially with Governor Brown pushing forward the development of 12,000 megawatts of renewable distributed generation by 2020, there is bound to be some new life behind expanding renewable DG. Hopefully that new life comes with innovative ideas, substantial funding, and plenty of green jobs for Californians.


An interesting read on ideas associated with location and size of electricity generation is Amory Lovins’ “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” (1976, Foreign Affairs, 55(1): 65–96). For those interested in considering these ideas further, it is worth reading.

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