Distributed generation refers to electricity generated at the point of consumption, such as a backup generator or rack of solar panels. These mini-systems could be used in isolation or could be part of a microgrid (i.e., network of interconnected generation sources) such as what you might see on a military base or college campus. The EPA estimates that there are over 12 million distributed generation devices in use today across the U.S.
Could Distributed Generation Growth Hurt the Environment?
This evolution in generation could have negative environmental impacts, according to the EPA. The biggest problem in my mind is the fact that some distributed generation technologies rely on burning fossil fuels, and as such create the same type of negative environmental impact as a traditional power plant.
Obviously these emissions are much smaller for each individual user-based unit, but small unit generation is far less efficient than large power plants. And as more and more of these small units come online, the frequency of these emissions could be high enough that they generate a larger impact than the low-frequency but high severity emissions from the more efficient large power plants.
If this happens, global warming would likely accelerate, which would not be helpful for the utility industry because as I’m sure you know this would increase the severity of weather cycles which would reduce electric grid reliability and increase outages.
But could this really happen? Your guess is as good as mine. All we can do is keep tabs on these and other current and emerging risks so we can adjust our emergency planning and preparedness processes as appropriate. The bottom line is that we, as emergency management professionals, cannot take anything for granted. The only constant is change, and as such it is critical that we stay ahead of industry trends, like distributed generation, that could impact emergency planning.