Many of us are lucky enough to have never thought much about where the basic things in our lives come from. We turn on the faucet and water comes out. We go to the supermarket and have endless options. We flip a switch and the lights come on. Behind that switch is a world that tends to stay invisible. It is a world of laborers, engineers, technicians, and drivers; of dams, coal mines, nuclear reactors, oil fields, gas lines, and incinerators. Increasingly, it is a world that includes scaled-up solar power and wind. Even in those cases, the energy being produced is out of sight and mind for its users.
What You See Is What You Get
Not so in the case of distributed generation, where energy is generated where it will be used. The solar energy systems we install in Westchester and Rockland are located on the sites where the energy is consumed. This has a tangible benefit in that far less energy is lost in transmission. Electrical energy traveling long distances tends to shed due to resistance in the wires. Electrical energy traveling from your roof to your electrical panel has such a short distance to travel that almost none is lost. There is also an intangible benefit — being able to see where your electricity is produced provides a daily reminder to be mindful about energy usage
The Utility’s Dilemma
One of the challenges for the utility companies that supply and manage grids is that they need to produce enough energy at any given moment to meet the maximum potential needs of their service area. Since that maximum is rarely reached in practice, they are often supplying the system with more electricity than is needed. That means wasted oil, coal, and gas.
The “smart grids” that many utilities are building provide a partial solution by monitoring usage patterns at individual sites and distributing energy accordingly. Utility companies are realizing that being more strategic about how they distribute energy is not only better for the environment, but also better for business. This is especially true as the population grows because developing a smart grid is more cost-effective than building new infrastructure. For this reason, some utilities (ConEdison included) are welcoming applications for distributed generation projects like solar installations
Solar Power: The Best of Everything
Most homeowners who go solar opt for grid-tied, rather than off-grid, systems. This can be the best of both worlds because you get the benefit of efficiency (producing energy where it will be used), and uninterrupted availability. (When you use more electrical energy than your system produces, you pull energy in; when you produce more than you use, you send energy to the grid and your account is credited for the excess.) The better we understand where our resources come from, the easier it will be able to make great decisions… like going solar.