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The Power of Distributed Power

by David Pescovitz
UC Berkeley, Lab Notes - Jan/Feb 2003

From the plains of Africa to the carports of this country, Berkeley professor Daniel Kammen is putting the power to generate renewable forms of energy into the hands of the people. The idea behind the distributed power systems Kammen researches is to equip individuals, businesses, or neighborhoods with the technology to produce their own electricity instead of buying it from centralized power plants. They might even make money doing it.

"Distributed systems are inherently more flexible, they're often cheaper, and they always provide more local control of power," says Kammen, professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering, the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), and the Goldman School of Public Policy.

Kammen will discuss new paradigms in energy production and distribution during his presentation at the College of Engineering's Berkeley in Silicon Valley symposium, March 1. The focus of Kammen's research is the environmental, health, and economic impacts of energy use in industrialized and developing countries.

In the late 1990s, the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL), under Kammen's direction, collaborated with Energy Alternatives Africa (EAA) to study the performance and condition of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels in rural Nairobi homes where for many sunlight is the only practical power source. The researchers published the results of their study and co-hosted workshops in the region to help inform and stimulate the PV market. They've also worked with international lending institutions to better understand how to support local markets and clean energy industries.

"Three years ago, the global market for photovoltaics was 150 total megawatts of panels sold annually," Kammen says. "Now it's more than 400 megawatts sold per year. Of course, that's only equivalent to about one-half of a fossil fuel power plant. But a watt placed directly in the hands of a rural Kenyan is totally different than watt at a power plant in a big US city."

Most recently, Kammen and several colleagues published a paper showing that automobiles powered by fuel cells can moonlight as distributed electricity generators for buildings at competitive rates.

Invented in 1839, fuel cells electrochemically convert energy in fuels like hydrogen. Fuel cells are highly efficient and environmentally sound their only waste product is water. In the next decade or so, hydrogen fuel cells may be integrated into everything from laptop computers, charged like cigarette lighters with a squirt of butane, to automobiles, refilled at hydrogen filling stations.

Kammen envisions owners of Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs) arriving at the office and plugging their cars into an electrical inlet. Throughout the day, the fuel cells continue to silently generate electricity that is fed into the building's power grid. Kammen estimates that if FCV owners were paid for their watts by their employer or utility company, they could earn between $200 to $1,000 a year. Powering a single house with an FCV is also promising but may only make economic sense, Kammen explains, when the large utilities are pressured to open markets again to small competitors, called "Qualifying Facilities." Thankfully, he adds, the utilities are in a period of transition and sound analysis, and state and federal policy choices could bring this shift about.

"If production is closer to where electricity is used, we'll waste less electricity during transmission," Kammen says. "What's more, we can avoid building new power plants and vastly increase the security and reliability of our electricity system."

Beyond the technology, distributed power systems face massive challenges in the political arena and the commercial marketplace. Kammen remains optimistic though.

"Instead of revamping an inefficient, antiquated grid that relies on 1940s technologies, we should replace it with distributed generation," he says. "And it doesn't have to be done overnight. We can update the system neighborhood by neighborhood, but only if the utilities or, more likely, emerging startup companies are afforded the market opportunity."


David Pescovitz
The Power of Distributed Power
UC Berkeley, College of Engineering, Lab Notes, Jan/Feb 2003

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