Last fall, at a Conservative Party conference in the United Kingdom, Greg Barker, a Conservative Member of Parliament and the country’s Energy & Climate Change Minister, called for a revolution. “I want to unleash a completely new model of competition and enterprise,” he said. “I want to encourage a vast new army of disruptive new energy players to challenge the Big Six [U.K. energy suppliers] …A decentralized power-to-the-people energy revolution—not just a few exemplars, but tens of thousands of them. The Big Six need to become the Big 60,000.”
What an invigorating call to action and inspiring vision of the future! Tens of thousands of homes and businesses across the U.K., each generating its own power and sharing excess with the grid. It’s a compelling idea, one made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s not really new. In fact, one might call decentralized—or distributed—power the oldest idea in the energy business.
At the dawn of the electric age, in the early 1880s, distributed generation was the only option available. In her absorbing history of electrification, Empires of Light author Jill Jonnes describes how William Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan, early supporters of electricity, had noisy steam engines installed under their New York City mansions—to the great annoyance of their neighbors—just so they could light their homes with the newfangled electricity. At the time, they had no choice: if they wanted power, they had to generate it themselves.
It would not be long, however, before Thomas Edison would open the world’s first central power plant—the Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan. And a few years after that, George Westinghouse commercialized the transformer, paving the way for high-voltage transmission over long distances, effectively enabling the model of centralized generation that dominates the power industry to this day.
How ironic, if the future were to end up looking more like the past, at least in concept, if not in specific technology. But there are signs that a transition to a more decentralized power system is indeed underway, in the U.K. and elsewhere. This is a positive development for many reasons. Distributed power provides numerous benefits over centralized generation: shorter development lead times; easier planning; lower costs; reduced financial, environmental, and physical risks; greater local control; and improved resilience of the power system overall.
Distributed generation, particularly rooftop solar, is gaining popularity in the U.S. too, of course, but really unleashing its potential will require supportive public policy. That is why it is so exciting that in the U.K. the idea is being embraced by a national government official—and a Conservative, to boot.
While many U.S. politicians continue to favor big coal plants, Mr. Barker sees decentralized, renewable power as free enterprise in action, an expression of his conservative values. In this view, distributed energy is an excellent small business opportunity that also enhances local control over vital power infrastructure. Distributed generation, in other words, truly is power to the people, in more ways than one.