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Opinion

Fri., April 10, 2009

Our View: Electricity grid needs smart-technology upgrades

Though it gets scant attention, one part of the infrastructure is perhaps the most important. Those plugged into the future know its power and potential, which they discussed at a conference this week in Spokane.

The electrical grid isn’t given much thought until a transmission line goes down or a brownout or blackout hits your neighborhood. Then power is restored, and we go back to our computers, televisions and appliances. But people behind the scenes know the grid could do so much more if we were willing to invest in it.

For now, most of us only expect the grid to keep the lights on. It’s like the personal computer of 20 years ago: useful, but not life-changing. Fortunately, there were visionaries who saw the potential of connectivity, and now we have e-mail, the Web and an explosion of online commerce and entertainment. A smart grid could also be transformative. It could transmit electricity more efficiently, take greater advantage of alternative energy sources, help combat global warming, offer choices to consumers and make us less vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

But first we have to end the neglect. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the demand for electricity has grown 25 percent a year since 1982, but research and development lags that of most other industries. The nation has built hundreds of thousands of high-voltage power lines, but only 668 since 2000. Of the five major blackouts in the country, three occurred in the past nine years. Transmission bottlenecks and outages cost American businesses $100 billion a year.

We can rectify that by making intelligent choices with the $4.5 billion in stimulus money earmarked for energy efficiency. That was the focal point of the Spokane conference attended by experts from the government and public and private utilities. The key is to leverage those dollars to bring about changes that can be sustained for decades.

One important factor is to get the public energized. The smart grid concept isn’t easy to understand. Planners need the equivalent of a showroom. Think of the first time you were wowed by plasma TV. You didn’t need to know how it worked to appreciate the picture. Of course, plasma TVs are among the biggest energy sappers around. Smart grid technology would convey that information, along with telling you which appliances aren’t running efficiently and how and where energy escapes your house.

With smart meters and other technology, power sources could communicate with smart appliances to minimize waste. The smart grid would also be decentralized, so nearby sources of energy could be tapped. This would make the grid less vulnerable to widespread blackouts and terrorist attacks.

If that still doesn’t excite you, then consider that a 5 percent increase in grid efficiency would be the equivalent of removing 53 million cars from the road. That’s an enormous benefit as the world grapples with solutions to greenhouse gas emissions.

Between 2010 and 2030, the nation needs to spend $1.5 trillion on the grid to keep up with population growth and increased digital demands. If we’re smart, we’ll spend it on a high-tech grid.



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