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Stimulus Dollars Energize Efforts To Smarten Up the Electric Power Grid

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By Peter Slevin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

ERLANGER, Ky. -- One gizmo allows you to run the dishwasher when electricity is cheapest. Another decides when to fire up the water heater if you plan on a 6 a.m. shower. Another routes solar energy from a rooftop panel to a battery in your garage and the wiring in your house.

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Outside, towers equipped with sensors tell the electric company exactly where a storm has knocked out power. The power grid itself can react to trouble, rerouting juice from a healthy part of the system or isolating itself to prevent a larger meltdown.

So far, this dramatization of "smart grid" technology is confined to an office park in northern Kentucky, but sponsor Duke Energy is one of many large utilities confident they can turn theater into reality for millions of customers, aided by billions of dollars in the federal stimulus package.

Smart grid is an essential component of President Obama's plan to change the nation's energy habits and reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, especially foreign oil. It would energize his hopes for more jobs and fewer pollutants while remaking a network still moored to the 1950s.

The computer-based upgrade will become all the more important if Obama succeeds in creating a cap-and-trade system that would charge companies for excessive carbon emissions. That policy would put a premium on conservation and the delivery of solar and wind energy.

Smart grid refers to an array of switches, sensors and computer chips that will be installed at various stages in the energy-delivery process -- in power stations, in electricity meters, in clothes dryers -- in the next two decades, if the vision holds and the technology works.

"It's going to work," vowed Duke Energy's chief technology officer, David W. Mohler.

While sporadic improvements to the transmission system are underway, no city has yet been wired. Much of Boulder, Colo., may be first, later this year.

To accomplish the vast national upgrade will cost hundreds of billions of dollars and require what one utility regulator called a "major paradigm shift" in the way people understand and use electricity.

"Changing light bulbs and caulking are going to be very primitive compared to what we're going to end up doing," Duke Energy President James E. Rogers said here.

But first, the infrastructure must be installed. When Obama promises "a better, smarter electricity grid," he is talking about overhauling a network that resembles your grandmother's patchwork quilt, and is about as frayed.

The system, considered an engineering marvel two generations ago, essentially does one thing: It carries electricity from Point A to Point B, feeding it into a home or business whenever a light switch is flipped or a cellphone is recharged.


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