Historically, central plants have been an integral part of the electric grid, in which large generating facilities are specifically located either close to resources or otherwise located far from populated load centers. These, in turn, supply the traditional transmission and distribution (T&D) grid that distributes bulk power to load centers and from there to consumers. These were developed when the costs of transporting fuel and integrating generating technologies into populated areas far exceeded the cost of developing T&D facilities and tariffs. Central plants are usually designed to take advantage of available economies of scale in a site-specific manner, and are built as “one-off,” custom projects.
These economies of scale began to fail in the late 1960s and, by the start of the 21st century, Central Plants could arguably no longer deliver competitively cheap and reliable electricity to more remote customers through the grid, because the plants had come to cost less than the grid and had become so reliable that nearly all power failures originated in the grid. Thus, the grid had become the main driver of remote customers’ power costs and power quality problems, which became more acute as digital equipment required extremely reliable electricity. Efficiency gains no longer come from increasing generating capacity, but from smaller units located closer to sites of demand.
For example, coal power plants are built away from cities to prevent their heavy air pollution from affecting the populace. In addition, such plants are often built near collieries to minimize the cost of transporting coal. Hydroelectric plants are by their nature limited to operating at sites with sufficient water flow.
Low pollution is a crucial advantage of combined cycle plants that burn natural gas. The low pollution permits the plants to be near enough to a city to provide district heating and cooling.
Distributed energy resources are mass-produced, small, and less site-specific. Their development arose out of:
Capital markets have come to realize that right-sized resources, for individual customers, distribution substations, or microgrids, are able to offer important but little-known economic advantages over central plants. Smaller units offered greater economies from mass-production than big ones could gain through unit size. These increased value—due to improvements in financial risk, engineering flexibility, security, and environmental quality—of these resources can often more than offset their apparent cost disadvantages. DG, vis-à-vis central plants, must be justified on a life-cycle basis. Unfortunately, many of the direct, and virtually all of the indirect, benefits of DG are not captured within traditional utility cash-flow accounting.
While the levelized cost of distributed generation (DG) is typically more expensive than conventional, centralized sources on a kilowatt-hour basis, this does not consider negative aspects of conventional fuels. The additional premium for DG is rapidly declining as demand increases and technology progresses, and sufficient and reliable demand may bring economies of scale, innovation, competition, and more flexible financing, that could make DG clean energy part of a more diversified future.
Distributed generation reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated very near where it is used, perhaps even in the same building. This also reduces the size and number of power lines that must be constructed.
Typical DER systems in a feed-in tariff (FIT) scheme have low maintenance, low pollution and high efficiencies. In the past, these traits required dedicated operating engineers and large complex plants to reduce pollution. However, modern embedded systems can provide these traits with automated operation and renewable energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal. This reduces the size of power plant that can show a profit.