For decades, most electricity has come from massive coal and nuclear power plants.
But the future may lie in smaller installations generating power from the sun and wind, according to PPL Electric Utilities. These smaller, decentralized electricity generators are known as ‘distributed energy’ and the company is gearing up for their growth.
“There will be more change in the electric utility industry over the next 10 years than we have experienced in the prior 100 years,” said Matt Green, chief information officer at Allentown-based PPL.
There have been, of course, incentives along the way. In the Lehigh Valley, for example, the Sustainable Energy Fund launched Solarize Lehigh Valley, a regional purchasing program designed to cut the costs of solar installation for residents and small businesses.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, hopes solar can produce 10 percent of the state’s electricity by 2030, up from the current 0.1 percent, using a combination of incentives and legislation, as well as a mix of large and small solar installations.
But it will take work – and wires – to get energy from those smaller sources to homes and businesses.
“Distributed energy will be everywhere, but we’ll still need the grid,” Green said.
To ensure the power grid remains safe and reliable, even as new generation connects to it, PPL has partnered with GE Power to develop what is known as Distributed Energy Technology. It will monitor the grid in real time to make sure there is a smooth input and output of power to the system.
No one considers the addition of these small power generators any kind of real safety threat, said Joe Nixon, a spokesman for PPL Electric Utilities.
“It’s just that the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing,” Nixon said. “It’s a complex thing that has an impact on the grid.”
Nixon said monitoring the power grid is important so that input meets output.
In other words, on a particularly cloudy day – or at night – the grid needs to be able to tap into other sources of generation to make up for the drop in supply from solar generators.
Those generators, he said, include a mix of residential, commercial and small-business solar users that produce excess energy that they sell back to the grid.
“We have to be able to manage and control that input,” Nixon said.
“The joint effort will serve as a real-time test to validate the technology and provide verification for other utilities considering implementation,” said Jeff Wright, vice president of product management with GE Power, a subsidiary of General Electric. “Together with PPL, we’ll be exploring automation to optimize grid operations, maintain distribution grid stability and manage the impact of distributed generation.”
Wes Checkeye, owner of Evoke Solar in Hellertown, which works with PPL through the Solarize Lehigh Valley program, said that as a solar installer he’s happy to see companies working to making sure the power system is prepared for additional input.
“I’ve done work in other areas where the grids haven’t been properly updated and maintained, and we can’t link into it because the lines can’t handle it,” he said.
In PPL’s territory he said that is generally not the case. Its grid has been updated in most areas to handle distributed energy.
A lack of utility commitment and unsupportive legislation can be the biggest hurdles for increasing the use of solar power generation in other parts of the country, he said
Eastern and central Pennsylvania, he said, has been more supportive.
But it’s managing the growth that he sees as key right now, which is why he supports the initiative by PPL and GE.
“I’ve been installing solar for 15 years and it’s always been up and down, but it’s certainly increasing. For us it’s about 30 percent to 40 percent a year growth,” Checkeye said.