Though district systems are used widely throughout Europe and are gaining traction elsewhere around the world, U.S. communities have been slower to adopt the central plant concept. This is partly due to readily available low-cost energy sources, such as natural gas and electricity, and the significant infrastructure investments needed to retrofit residential buildings and transmit thermal energy across the U.S. urban landscape.
However, we must look beyond these short-term challenges so U.S. municipalities can benefit from distributed energy systems. Proof of their value can be seen during devastating natural events, such as Hurricane Sandy, when combined heat and power (CHP) enabled numerous infrastructure systems to continue operating during and after the super storm. And the recently released “Combined Heat and Power Technical Potential in the United States,” developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, further promotes the practical implementation of CHP projects.
The microgrid concept can take advantage of a community’s nearby resources, leveraging fuel flexibility for centralized energy delivery.
By revitalizing and supplementing centralized systems with other sources, such as wind and solar, they become sustainable, easy to maintain, and more reliable with built in redundancies. This microgrid concept—interconnecting a variety of power sources for wide-spread neighborhood use—is gaining favor in North America. Recent reports indicate at least 400 microgrid projects are operating or underway around the world, with North America taking the overall market share in this development.
The micro-grid concept can take advantage of a community’s nearby resources, leveraging fuel flexibility for centralized energy delivery. For example, communities with great sun and wind can connect solar panels and wind turbines to their local grid. Wastewater reclamation, biomass, waste-to-energy and landfills facilities can be used—and even collocated—to create thermal energy and electricity for local benefit.
Whether through a central plant or microgrid system, these distributed energy models are an increasingly important part of our energy future, providing long-term grid reliability, energy efficiency and resiliency to withstand and recover from extreme weather.
Learn more from the Department of Energy:
Matt Goss is a senior vice president and the practice leader for energy in CDM Smith’s infrastructure and technology group. With more than 14 years of experience, Matt is a licensed professional engineer in 14 states, is a LEED Accredited Professional and is also a Certified Energy Manager, Certified Energy Auditor and Certified Demand Side Manager.