Modernizing the Grid: Adapting to the Use of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs)

Moving away from the traditional, centralized energy system toward a more dynamic, decentralized energy infrastructure is necessary for a greener, more sustainable energy future. While there is clearly a need for large-scale, centralized renewable energy sources, utilities also need to embrace the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs).

DERs have become a major part of today’s power generation landscape. These small-scale power sources located closer to loads include systems such as solar gardens, rooftop solar and smaller-scale wind turbines, coupled with energy storage components such as batteries and hydro-based pump storage.

Most often, these systems do not provide very high voltages and currents; hence they have lower power losses and do not require complex and costly power delivery systems. In most deployments, they are connected to the electricity distribution network or behind the meter on the customer’s side of the network. A typical example is the commercial or residential rooftop solar or wind turbine that powers a single business, factory, or household.


Benefits & Advantages of DERs

With the right technology, management, and controls, a distributed energy model is sustainable, scalable, and often more reliable. In particular, the inherently modular nature of smaller generation sources avoids heavy expenditures on large, unreliable, and costly centralized generation plants. The distributed resources add flexibility and stability in the production and distribution of electricity, delivering various benefits to the grid and to consumers. For example, a failure in a large power plant can disrupt the grid and supply to a large number of consumers. On the other hand, a fault in one DER is manageable and has little impact on the entire system.

Furthermore, improved grid performance and capacity – coupled with reduced need for investment in things like large generating plants and associated transmission systems – can result in significant savings for utilities and consumers. Other benefits include being more cost-efficient, environmentally friendly, and in some consideration offering greater security against physical and cyber-attacks.


Opportunities for Government Support of DERs

From a cost-competitiveness standpoint, DERs can generally stand on their own, however there is a place for federal and provincial policies to help facilitate the smooth integration of these newer energy sources into the grid—this is particularly the case when it comes to larger-scale, more intermittent DERs.

As Bill Strohecker, Country Managing Director for Hitachi ABB Power Grids Canada, explains, “existing regulations weren’t necessarily designed with DERs in mind. As a result, adjustments could be required to smooth the way for the integration of DERs and remove obstacles that may exist not just because of any particular intent, but also because the regulations in question were originally developed to guide a different kind of energy delivery model.”

There are other benefits from DERs that governments may want to consider, apart from purely commercial considerations. For instance, because many natural gas-fired power plants have shut down in California, the state’s grid operator has experienced brownouts during recent heatwaves. Such brownouts could potentially be avoided or mitigated with adequate build out of DERs.

Ultimately, countries and regions have been establishing aggressive sustainability goals and in order to meet them, they are relying more heavily on renewable sources. DERs certainly can figure more prominently into that equation than they do today.


Battery Storage Contributing to the Growth of DERs

Battery energy storage systems also have an important role to play particularly when it comes to the integration of DERs into the power mix. Battery systems can be particularly helpful in bringing greater stability and consistency to systems that rely on intermittent power sources, such as wind. In recent years, Hitachi ABB Power Grids Canada has had quite a bit of success helping remote First Nation communities that previously had to depend on diesel-powered generators for their electricity needs —transition to renewables, be it wind generation, hydro sources, solar or some combination thereof.

Efficient, intelligent, and flexible energy storage is a necessity to support the continued growth in the adoption DERs. These systems also help to provide greater access to electricity for those who are distanced from the main grid and enable them to wean themselves from the dependence on inefficient, costly, and non-sustainable fuel sources.


Although DERs provide many benefits, Strohecker explains “the reality is that smaller-scale DERs are not going to be enough to meet our increasingly ambitious sustainability goals unless consumers are encouraged to invest heavily in them, so utilities will need to look to or encourage large-scale renewable generation as a key element of their portfolio.”

In the end, what is increasingly clear is that renewables are the future, and this future isn’t far off; in many cases, it’s already here.


About Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Hitachi ABB Power Grids is a global technology leader with a combined heritage of almost 250 years, employing around 36,000 people in 90 countries. Headquartered in Switzerland, the business serves utility, industry and infrastructure customers across the value chain, and emerging areas like sustainable mobility, smart cities, energy storage and data centers. With a proven track record, global footprint and unparalleled installed base, Hitachi ABB Power Grids balances social, environmental and economic values. It is committed to powering good for a sustainable energy future, with pioneering and digital technologies, as the partner of choice for enabling a stronger, smarter and greener grid.