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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

Solar Sparks An Old Grid Debate: Centralized Or Decentralized?

Edison: Perry-Castañeda Library/UT-Austin / Westinghouse: Joseph G. Gessford-Library of Congress
Public Domain
On the left, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb and on the right, George Westinghouse, entreprenuer and inventor of the air/steam brake.

A rapidly increasing number of U.S. households are installing rooftop solar panels, and that’s foreshadowing a wider debate over the future role of our traditional electric grid. Ironically, it is a debate we’ve already had.

In the 1880s, heralded inventor Thomas Edison was locked in a bitter battle with engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse over how this new invention of electric power should spread across the country, a battle commonly known as The War of the Currents.

Edison invented the very concept of electric power distribution. He called for a decentralized, widely distributed power system with a bunch of small power plants providing low-voltage direct current (DC) electricity to nearby homes and businesses.

Westinghouse, working with inventor Nikola Tesla, advocated the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC) from a centralized system of large industrial power plants transmitted out to a spiderweb of power lines connecting the entire country.

"By the time you recognize that technologies are disrupting, it's too late."

Westinghouse, AC and the centralized system eventually won out. That’s more or less the model of the grid we have used ever since. It is a stable, reliable, cheap system, currently threatened by rooftop solar.

A little bit. Maybe. Eventually.

Right now solar is one of smallest parts of our electricity system, but Ryan Pletka with the infrastructure consulting firm Black and Veatch, sees adoption trends going through the roof.

“If you look at data on the growth rate of solar... it’s almost a flat wall in terms of a spike,” Pletka said.

It's as if Thomas Edison’s original distributed power model is coming back from the dead to battle the Westinghouse system once again. There is even a resurgent call for more DC electrical supplies.

As we’ve reported, many utilities have been pushing back against rooftop solar, claiming it is an unreliable, intermittent, resource coming in at various voltages and competing on the same lines with their big power plant electricity. Utilities are lobbying in state capitals and in Washington D.C. to hold rooftop solar back and make it more expensive.

But consultants like Pletka are suggesting that utilities should jump into the solar game - lease panels, sell panels and embrace the change.

“We feel the utilities are in a unique position in the industry where they can proactively respond to distributed generation, particularly solar PV [photovoltaic],” Pletka said.

Some companies, like NRG Energy, are doing just this. NRG Energy operates in almost every state from New Jersey to Wyoming.  It is not a utility, but is similar in that it has centralized, old-style power plants and sells that electricity to consumers. The company will also sell residential solar panels, it will lease them, whatever its customers want.

“(We’re) a power company of choice,” said NRG Home Solar President Kelcey Pegler Junior.

NRG has to compete with other power providers, unlike many utilities. That’s part of why NRG feels more of a need to stay ahead of the curve on distributed solar.

“By the time you recognize that technologies are disrupting, it’s too late,” Pegler said.

Doug Arent works as Executive Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. It is his job to study future scenarios for the electric grid. He’s an optimist, and said it doesn’t have to be an us versus them, utility versus rooftop solar owner scenario.

“It’s a collective dialog about how do we collectively move that system forward,” he said.

He thinks this conflict will work itself out in time, that eventually we’ll have a hodge-podge of electricity sources: decentralized and centralized, DC and AC, Edison and Westinghouse.

Arent believes we’ll still have the major grid, but towns will also have smaller microgrids they can rely on in emergencies, more homes will have battery storage to back up their rooftop solar panels and utilities will adapt to all of that.

Again, he’s an optimist.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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