The power grid in the era of distributed generation

A word from Antonio Cammisecra


There is a push for change toward the energy transition that involves everyone: the growth of distributed power generation and the electrification of consumption. But making this possible requires an increasingly reliable, digitalized and sustainable grid.

The energy transition is one of the greatest challenges of our time, and it would be impossible to meet it without everyone's contribution:

  • the United Nations, the European Union and governments all play a key role in establishing measures to accelerate the development of renewables and electrification;
  • companies, whose job it is to turn those measures into business plans, and which in some cases – such as the Enel Group – set even more ambitious sustainability goals than those imposed by policy;
  • and the increasingly important contribution of individual citizens. 


The growth of distributed generation: the role of prosumers

What is clearly emerging is a great push for change coming from millions of people who are increasingly becoming key players in their own energy future, making the transition to an electrified world in their own homes, businesses and communities.

They are the prosumers, a neologism born from the fusion of producer and consumer: people who are at the same time producers and consumers of energy, two roles that have traditionally been separate but in the new electrification scenario are no longer mutually exclusive.

But who are prosumers, really? They are citizens and businesses that choose to install a photovoltaic system or a mini-wind power system to produce electricity for their own needs, feeding the excess power they generate into the distribution grid for it to be available to other users. And they can come together in energy communities: associations of households, businesses and public administrations that contribute together to the installation and use of renewable systems, sharing the energy produced through the distribution grid.

In 2022, with Enel Grids, we connected a record number of prosumers and producers to our grids, for a total new generation capacity of 5.6 GW, mostly from photovoltaic systems. In total, this brought the small- and medium-scale renewable capacity connected to our grids to 65.7 GW, and the number of prosumers to 1.4 million. Of these, 1.2 million are in Italy, for a total capacity of more than 34 GW. We expect even larger numbers in 2023, in light of continued growth in demand.


Digital, flexible and resilient grids

None of this would be possible, however, without a profound digital transformation of distribution grids, the real enabling technology: small and medium-sized generation systems are directly connected to medium- and low-voltage infrastructure.

Distributed electric generation requires moving beyond the centralized grid model to which we’ve been accustomed so far, which sees energy start at power plants, transit over high-voltage transmission grids, and finally move onto distribution grids that bring it to individual homes.

In the prosumer era, energy enters the distribution grid directly, can travel in either direction (to the transmission grids or to the consumers), with large variations (from one season to the next, from one day to the next, from one hour to the next) in supply and demand.

While today the share of energy fed directly into distribution networks stands at 27% in Europe, according to BloombergNEF analysts this percentage will reach 50% by 2034. This is a revolution that the Group is embracing and successfully leading thanks in part to Grid Futurability®, the global industrial approach through which Enel Grids anticipates and meets the needs of grid stakeholders through the transformation of traditional infrastructures into increasingly resilient, sustainable and interactive platforms: from smart meters to devices that can take intelligence to the edge.

It is digitalization that enables the grid to manage two-way flows, adjusting in real time to both renewable energy production and fluctuations in demand, to constantly ensure energy balance. This advanced management capability also enables the development of new business models for individual prosumers, creating additional incentives to install renewables or storage systems.


Sustainability at all levels

As we continue to invest and innovate to grow the grids of the future, we cannot forget that the ultimate goal is clean electrification, the main road to reducing emissions and combating climate change. The networks themselves must be designed and operated with a focus on sustainability, to make a zero-emissions future possible. That's why we apply the principles of the circular economy to our grids, extending the life cycle of components as far as possible, putting them back into the value chain wherever possible and recycling raw materials. We are constantly working to extend access to the grids of the future to urban and suburban areas that are currently excluded, so that the opportunities offered by the energy transition leave no one behind.