Distributed energy

The emergence of renewable energies, and with them the possibility of having a large number of electricity production plants of different sizes, has significantly changed the electricity distribution map. With this new grid interconnected by a bi-directional and variable flow of energy, the electricity system gains in flexibility and efficiency as it brings the generation of electricity closer to its final consumption.

The concept of distributed power generation refers to the proliferation of small installations capable of producing electricity as close as possible to where it is consumed, assuming that these generation points are connected to the power distribution grid.

It is not, therefore, the idea of simply putting a handful of solar panels on the roofs of each house. Nor is it the strict concept of self-consumption, which aims to generate electricity to meet one's own needs and perhaps feed any surplus into the grid, so that this form of generation for self-consumption can also be a component of a decentralised system, not as dependent as today's on large power plants and transmission infrastructures.

Microgeneration efficiently distributed throughout the territory adds a factor of stability to the electricity system, making it less vulnerable to the failure of any of the major supply sources. It reduces the load on the grids and also the energy loss inherent in transmission. And it can incorporate all types of energy generation systems, although what is considered most desirable is to take advantage of renewables and, in Spain's case, especially solar.

If deployment has not been made possible in Spain, it is largely due to a regulatory framework that has not favoured it. Or rather, it practically prevented it. But everything surrounding renewables should be a very important market in Spain. And, at least, there is already a regulatory change to favour it, as of the Royal Decree 244/2019of 5 April last.

With this Royal Decree, the government establishes a regulation of the administrative, technical and economic conditions for the self-consumption of electricity. The text states that its objective is to "encourage self-consumption to be carried out with renewable distributed generation". It also establishes "that self-consumed energy from renewable sources, cogeneration or waste will be exempt from all types of charges and tolls".

The regulation redefines the legal concept of self-consumption, understanding it to be "the consumption by one or several consumers of electricity from generation facilities close to and associated with those of consumption".

It also establishes that there are two modalities: those that do not generate surpluses, and therefore do not discharge to the grid, and those that do. Consumers without surpluses are exempted from the requirement to have "access and connection permits for generation facilities".

And finally, the decree establishes a remuneration formula for surpluses fed into the grid which, in a simplified way, is equivalent to the price paid at any given moment for the electricity consumed from the grid. A regulation that definitively eliminates the 'sun tax' and, in the opposite sense, also seems more reasonable than the one that caused a speculation bubble a decade ago, with investments in renewables based on unsustainable remuneration that multiplied the prices charged to end consumers several times over. The bursting of that bubble and the political decisions that followed brought the natural development of solar and wind energy deployment to a screeching halt.

If the regulatory environment ceases to be an almost insurmountable barrier to the proliferation of energy harvesting systemsThere remain significant technological challenges, on distributed solar energy and the eventual support of other sources, renewable or not.

It is not just a question of installing panels, but of how to integrate them with solutions that allow greater autonomy. The model, which is called smart grid, tries to apply intelligence for the dynamic integration of the systems that are generating, those that are consuming and, eventually, the means of storage that could be available to compensate for moments of lower production than consumption. Situations that occur when there are clouds and rain, and when it is night and the main source is sunlight. Or when there is no wind to move the wind turbines of the windmills.

More than a decade ago, a Danish dreamer, Peter Qvist Lorentsen, wanted to set up a self-sufficient mini-city, based on renewable energies, solar and wind, connected to a smart grid which, isolated from the general grid, had the biggest challenge of completing the cycle at times when there was no sun or wind. Their plan was to generate hydrogen, as an energy reserve, and use the batteries of electric cars (at least one in each garage) as distributed storage. The curious experiment, called H2PIA, was never carried out. It was hit hard by the crisis and recession. But the almost utopian design of that project provides valuable clues to the kind of problems and solutions on which the idea of distributed energy hinges.

Spain's role

Experts believe that Spain could be a leader, as it was in the early stages of the deployment of wind and solar thermal energy. At least in this field, it can be said that Spain has abundant raw materials. vThere is still a lot of technology to be deployed, developed and integrated, which points to a great opportunity.

Technically, questions of how energy can be shared virtually with other generators and how surpluses can be fed into the grid need to be resolved. And intelligence around consumption needs to be developed, so that it is possible to shift the graph curves from centralised and globally managed generation to distributed, coordinated and granular production to tackle incidents in proximity.