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11.17.2021

Distributed Energy 101: Types of DERs

Sawyer Stuckey | Distributed Energy Resources/Microgrids

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We continue to hear more about renewable energy, batteries and microgrids than ever before. Some of this information can be quite technical, so it may be helpful to break down these distributed energy concepts to help you navigate the changes in where our energy comes from and how we’ll use it in the near future.

A distributed energy resource (DER) is typically referred to as a local energy generating source, either connected to the utility grid or designed as a stand-alone microgrid. DERs enable a smarter distribution of energy than the traditional power grid in several ways. Typically, the utility grid was comprised of centralized power plants creating massive amounts of power and distributing it to end users. This has led to inefficiencies due to the energy having to travel so far. It also leads to less resiliency; if the power plant or any part of the distribution system goes down for any reason, end users are without power. DERs create a more decentralized system that generates energy close to the end user, eliminating most of the issues with the traditional centralized grid.

The image below depicts how DERs are being used. DERs are able to decentralize power and decarbonize it as well with the use of renewable energy as the primary energy source.

DERs can come in many shapes and sizes, but here are some of the more popular varieties:

Wind Turbines

You have likely seen these large spinning devices in action, especially in more rural areas around the country. They are growing in popularity and can provide energy as long as the wind blows. Wind turbines work when wind passes over the blades causing them to turn, which runs a generator in the head of the turbine and generates power. These turbines are essentially giant generators that run on wind instead of diesel or natural gas.

Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panels

Over the last 10 years, these electricity-producing devices have seen prices drop by over 90%, leading to a corresponding boom in popularity. Have you ever wondered how a solar panel works? Photons (basically balls of sunlight) knock loose electrons within the panel. Electrons want to get to the closest positively charged molecule, which requires that electron to travel through a wire. This creates electricity, which can be used to power businesses and homes.

Energy Storage Systems (ESS)

Energy storage systems can come in many forms, from flywheels to large tanks of hydrogen. Typically when referring to an ESS, we mean lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are gaining the same momentum as solar did a few years ago, and the prices are starting to drop as well. Energy storage systems do just as the name implies; they store energy. This energy can be stored mechanically, electrically or chemically when there is more energy produced than needed, and then that same energy is released when it is needed.

The key features of energy storage systems are their response time, efficiency and energy density. The technologies on these systems will only improve as research continues to create better products that enhance those features. Renewable energy has long had naysayers asking, what happens when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing? Energy storage systems are able to solve these intermittency issues, causing that narrative to be a thing of the past.

Generators

Generators have been around for a long time; they operate on a wide range of fuels and can vary greatly in size. These dependable devices have a strong track record and can enhance resiliency when combined into a system including renewable energy and an ESS.

Microgrids

Microgrids are a great way to combine some or all of these resources into one intelligent system. This allows for the solar and/or wind to create power for immediate use, store the excess in an ESS and have a generator pick up any slack, providing a business or home with efficient, resilient and sustainable energy. These systems can be completely off-grid (islanded), or grid-connected for added resiliency. In some cases, a grid-connected microgrid can provide excess power back to the utility grid for use by others.

At EnTech Solutions, we partner with you on your energy needs and develop a microgrid system that meets your resilience, sustainability and financial goals. Examples of some of our microgrid projects can be seen in our project spotlights. Please contact us with any questions on how we can help you with your energy needs.