Distributed energy resources — from the solar panels on your neighbor’s roof to a wind farm outside of town — can help move whole communities away from fossil fuels, by lessening reliance on conventional power plants. But in order to make that shift, utility companies need better ways to track the power coming from these small, unconnected sources. Researchers at Southampton University in the U.K. have proposed a new way of forming “virtual power plants” that can better connect distributed energy to the grid.

By aggregating a large number of distributed resources into one group, about the size of a conventional power plant, researchers say that renewable energy can become better integrated with the grid. To keep the grid running smoothly, power suppliers need to estimate their production; operators then decide how many generators must run to meet needs. Small sources like solar panels can often be invisible to the grid.

Cooperative Virtual Power Plants (CVPPs) connected by software and incentivized with payments for producers, can be a solution, researchers say. The combination of a large group of producers helps average out any errors in predicting production. Each distributed energy resource would have an “intelligent software agent” making production estimates. Those who make the most accurate predictions would be credited, helping improve overall accuracy. With more accurate predictions, it will become easier for grid operators to rely on renewable energy, and slow down the use of fossil fuels.

Main photo credit: chaunceydavis818/Flickr