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Outdated energy infrastructure holds back smart-grid future, report says

Despite the Obama administration's pledge of $11 billion to modernize the nation's electric grid, the implementation of so-called "smart-grid" technology that would enable energy efficiency while bringing renewable energy sources online faces a number of hurdles, including an out-dated infrastructure beset by congestion and bottlenecks that constrain the expanded use of sources such as wind, solar and geothermal power, according to a report issued Monday.

The ideal national clean-energy smart grid would use long-distance, extra-high-voltage transmission lines to move remote clean-energy resources to power load centers and connect to a distribution system that delivers energy and detailed, real-time information about the use of such energy to consumers, says the report by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a D.C. think tank headed by former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

One obstacle, according to CAP senior fellow Bracken Hendricks, who authored the report: the current high-voltage transmission grid's inability to access places many of these renewable energy resources will be developed. For example, although the U.S. will have the wind resources to supply more than 20 percent of the nation's electricity demand by 2030, according to a recent Department of Energy study, "the best of these wind resources are located primarily in remote regions of the country," the CAP report says.

A related problem: congestion and bottlenecks in the current grid keep it from being reliable enough to move large volumes of new power from these remote generation areas to more populated areas where it is needed. Congested transmission lines raise costs by limiting the ability to add low-emission renewable resources, according the report, which adds that there is a "backlog of 300,000 megawatts of wind projects waiting in line for connection to the grid because of inadequate transmission capacity."

These problems, plus the insufficient monitoring and control technology used to manage the current transmission and distribution networks, prevent the widespread use of home solar panels, intelligent, energy-saving appliances and so-called "micro grids" that could be established locally (apart from the main grid) during an emergency and used by first responders during natural disasters, according to the new report.

To make the investment promised by the stimulus package work, the grid will have to be treated as a national enterprise rather than a system owned by different utility companies in different states, the report recommends. This means that clean-energy projects will have to be reviewed by a centralized authority that can approve projects across multiple states simultaneously (to keep construction of any one piece from being held back).

The push for a smart grid will be helped by prominent technologies companies' attempts to create a market for smart meters and other smart grid components. Google earlier this month announced that it's developing software called PowerMeter, which will let consumers check out their home energy use in near real-time on their computers. IBM in 2007 created the Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition, a group of utility companies working with IBM to accelerate the adoption of smart grid technologies worldwide. Microsoft also recently announced it will let its business customers see information about their energy consumption and impact on the environment via Microsoft Dynamics AX software.

Image ©iStockphoto.com/ Alan Goulet

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