| The Power of Distributed Power
by David Pescovitz
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.
wires up a solar panel, adjusting the device that measures
how much sunlight the panel absorbs; all this in the treetops
of his Wurster Hall roof lab.
"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."
solar panels, such as these, could be used to produce hydrogen
to power a fuel cell vehicle.
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
Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory
Fuel Cell Vehicle's Day May Be Dawning" by Susan Davis (Forefront,
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