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Smart grid will put our energy use in fast lane

When a group of tech-savvy people gathered for a conference in Spokane last April, there were plenty of ideas about how to make the nation’s electrical grid “smarter.” Dangling in front of these inventors and innovators was a huge chunk of federal stimulus money. This week, the Obama administration announced 100 grant recipients, and some of them are in the Northwest.

Avista Utilities was awarded $20 million and will match that with $22 million as it installs high-tech sensors that can pinpoint outages in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. This will enable the utility to get the lights back on as soon as possible. Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman and Itron in Spokane Valley will also benefit because they make smart-grid components.

The Western Utility Coordinating Council, a 14-state consortium of utilities including the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho Power, was awarded $53 million in 14 states to work on a synchronized system for real-time detection of energy bottlenecks, which will make transmission more efficient.

Idaho Power also received $47 million to modernize transmission, with better outage detection and a smart-meter system. These meters will communicate real-time consumption data to utilities and give consumers better information with which to control their consumption. A total of 18 million homes nationwide are scheduled to get smart meters as part of this round of federal grants.

The $3.4 billion in federal grants is part of a wider effort to upgrade the nation’s long-neglected energy transmission system. The demand for electricity has grown 25 percent a year since 1982, but research and development lags behind that of most other industries, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

The nation has hundreds of thousands of power lines but has built only 668 since 2000. As a result, major blackouts have become more common, costing cost American businesses $150 billion a year.

A more integrated smart grid is essential to the development of alternative energy sources, because it would allow wind farms in, say, the Dakotas to deliver power to either coast. The current grid is an impediment, because the energy source needs to be closer to where it is used. The smart grid is also an important weapon in the fight to limit the effects of global warming. A 5 percent improvement in grid efficiency is equivalent to removing 53 million cars from the roads.

The nation has always been able to understand the benefits of an efficient highway system in good repair. Smart-grid projects will give us the first glimpse of the benefits of high-tech avenues to move and conserve energy.


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