Natural Gas Sets Off a Distributed-Energy Boom

Fuel cells, engines, and hybrids of both get popular as gas prices fall

3 min read
Natural Gas Sets Off a Distributed-Energy Boom
It’s a Gas: This GE engine runs on biogas produced at the Beijing Deqingyuan Chicken Farm.
Photo: GE

Rooftop solar has long been the poster child of distributed energy, but experts say the boom in the natural gas supply and memories of large-scale outages are also playing a big role in moving electricity generation out of the hands of big utilities.

Different gas-fueled technologies—fuel cells, microturbines, reciprocating engines, and turbines—are now competing for a spot in the basements of businesses. “People are genuinely waking up to their options,” says Kerry-Ann Adamson, research director at Navigant Research. “Distributed-generation technology can be better than the current option of centralized power on the grid.”

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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