'Smart Grid' Presents Great Promise, Complications

April 26, 2009|By Rebecca Cole | Rebecca Cole,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -One warm August afternoon in 2003, a power failure originating in Ohio coursed through the northeastern section of the electrical grid, sparking the nation's largest blackout ever and leaving millions in eight states without air conditioning, traffic lights or cell phone service.

A "smart grid" might have averted a shutdown that cost an estimated $6 billion.

That new grid - a digital network allowing utilities, consumers and alternative sources of renewable energy to "talk" to one another - could steer electricity to where it is needed most, avert cascading energy bottlenecks and promote power from alternative sources.

President Barack Obama has made the smart grid a major plank of his "rebuilding America" plan, viewing it as a way not only to eliminate blackouts and power failures, but also to create new jobs and cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

In the economic stimulus act that the president signed in February, Congress allocated $4.5 billion for smart-grid investments, a thin slice of the $38.7 billion that the package funneled to the Department of Energy.

But is it enough?

"We are making a down payment," said Matt Rogers, a senior adviser to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

The down payment will pay for a set of pilot projects to demonstrate the viability of the smart grid and to show that it can deliver energy on a large scale, Rogers explains, with a goal of driving electrical utilities to make long-term investments in smart-grid technologies.

The Electric Power Research Institute has estimated the cost of building a smart grid at a staggering $165 billion - about $8 billion a year for two decades.

And one of the biggest challenges in rolling out a smart grid, energy experts say, is getting hundreds of industries, from power generators to appliance and auto manufacturers, to agree on a set of standards - some already developed, many not ready yet.

Talk of complex standards may not sound as appealing as an in-home "smart meter," displaying the energy that a refrigerator uses or how much of it is powered by a nearby solar farm. Yet without standards, that smart meter is just another "dumb" appliance.

"If you look at how vast the grid is, all the way from generator to consumer, to bring together a communication fabric so that information can be exchanged, will take four to five years, easy," said Arshad Mansoor, vice president of power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility industry think tank.

Hired by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop a road map of standards and find a consensus on a plan, Mansoor's group will help the institute, Secretary Chu and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke jump-start the process in early May.

The potential problems are daunting: "It will be a mess," Mansoor says, if auto manufacturers each come up with a unique standard for how plug-in hybrid technology will communicate with the smart grid - reminiscent of the "VHS vs. Beta-max war" of the early 1980s. To avoid that, the electric utility industry is working with automotive engineers to develop plug-in standards.

Demand for electricity is predicted to grow 30 percent by 2020, placing yet more stress on the grid and increasing risk of blackouts. That's without the additional demand that would be generated by the 1 million plug-in hybrids Obama has envisioned putting on the roads by 2015.

"Today an American consumer uses 13 times the electricity he or she did a half-century ago and there are twice as many of us," James Hoecker told a House energy subcommittee earlier this year. The former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, now counsel for WIRES, an electricity industry advocacy group, said: "We're asking the transmission system to perform tasks for which it was not designed."

Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the "dumb and old energy distribution system" hasn't changed much from the days of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla at the turn of the 20th century. "Electricity in the grid is like water in pipes," Hendricks said. "You need to manage supply and demand. You have to keep the levels in balance, or the whole system crashes down."

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