White House pushes policies to upgrade nation’s aging electrical network

Our 21st-century nation is operating on an early-20th-century power grid.

Power outages are becoming more common — and not just because of natural disasters. Transmission lines are not equipped to handle the expected influx of wind and solar energy. And consumers have no idea how, exactly, they are spending their electricity dollars — or how to save them. That’s why the White House on Monday announced policies designed to speed development of a next-generation electrical network. Such a “smart grid” seeks to reduce consumption, efficiently deliver power from renewable sources, and reduce the frequency and length of blackouts, White House science adviser John Holdren said Monday at an event to roll out the initiative.

“The task is big but doable,” Holdren said. “The Obama administration, with utility companies, is in fact making it happen.”

The U.S. system is now so creaky that 19th-century electricity pioneer Thomas Edison “would feel really at home with most of today’s power . . . system,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “We do need a modernized electrical grid.”

Under the White House plan, the Agriculture Department will provide $250 million in loans to upgrade rural electrical transmission lines. The administration will also work closely with the nation’s power companies as they invest in new power technologies, while a new Energy Department “research hub” will fund smart grid research and development. The White House did not announce how much funding this new center might provide.

The new policies immediately drew skepticism. Upgrading the nation’s electrical system — a fragmented network operated by 3,000 utility companies across 300,000 miles of power lines — will cost between $338 billion and $476 billion, according to a report from the Electric Power Research Institute.

It’s far from clear if the new policies will spur such a huge investment. Power utilities spend only 0.2 percent of their revenues on research and development, less than any other industry except papermaking, said Massoud Amin, a University of Minnesota professor who has long promoted upgrading the power system.

One consequence is increased power outages. From 2000 to 2004, the United States experienced 149 blackouts, each of which affected at least 50,000 people. From 2005 to 2009, that figure more than doubled, to 349, according to Energy Department data. This month, the District has already endured several power outages as record temperatures stressed the system, run by Pepco.

A smart grid can prevent outages by reducing demand during peak times, such as programming appliances to run only at night, and by automatically rerouting electricity around failure points.

Chu said that the technology underpinning the U.S. electrical grid lags behind that of other countries. In China, next generation high-voltage power lines efficiently transport wind and solar power 1,250 miles from the west of that country to the populated east. If such long-distance renewable power transport were attempted in the United States, roughly 80 percent of the generated electricity would be lost in transmission, Chu said.

Chu also pointed to Ireland as an innovator. That country obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, and it recently built a smart grid that quickly ramps up gas-fired generators when wind power flags, a feat the U.S. grid can’t perform.

 
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