$3.4 billion in grants to be announced for smart grid

We waste a significant amount of electricity due to an outdated and inefficient electric grid in the United States. Thus, this investment is significant.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will announce $3.4 billion in government grants to help build a “smart” electric grid that will save consumers money on their utility bills, reduce blackouts and carry power supplies generated by solar and wind energy, the White House said.

It marks the largest award made in a single day from the $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress, and will create tens of thousands of jobs while upgrading the U.S. electric grid, according to administration officials.

The grants, which range from $400,000 to $200 million, will go to 100 companies, utilities, manufacturers, cities and other partners in 49 states.

This investment is only the first step, and part of the criteria here was the speed with which companies could implement the changes, as this money comes from the stimulus package. For example, the grants will not be used to build new power lines, but improve the capabilities of the electrical system. The funds will be used for a variety of projects, including approximately “18 million smart meters that will help consumers manage energy use in their homes, 700 automated substations to make it faster for utilities to restore power knocked out by storms and 200,000 smart transformers that allow power companies to replace units before they fail, thus avoiding outages.” Companies had to bid and compete for the funds, and the winning companies secured an additional $4.7 billion in private money to match their government grants, resulting in a total of $8.1 billion in total investment in the smart grid.

The smart meters are critical, as they encourage consumers to use electricity more efficiently. If you can see on your meter that running the dishwasher costs you more during the day, you will consider running it at night instead when rates are cheaper. If you’re costs are spiking during the day, you might realize that you can open the windows instead of running the air conditioner.

Plug-in hybrids should NOT be a problem for our electric utilities

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The Plain Dealer has a misleading headline regarding plug-in hybrids: “Plug-in hybrids could prove costly for utility companies.” That’s true only if we approach the issue of charging plug-in hybrids without using our heads, but as the article points out there are very logical ways to address this potential problem.

Scott Moore, vice president of transmission for American Electric Power, said that issue could be solved either by smart chargers on the cars or by smart charging plugs in houses. If drivers plugged in their cars at 6 p.m., but the car didn’t start charging until 2 a.m., the system could probably handle the demand.

Even better would be if the driver plugged his car into an Internet-connected charger that could switch on and off as power was available. On a blustery day, when wind farms were producing extra power, cars could charge in the early evening. On a more typical day, charging could happen late at night.

“You’d get about 80 percent of the benefit from just changing the time of charging until early morning,” Moore said. “You’d get an extra 20 percent benefit from letting (utility companies) figure out when to charge you.”

The solution is obvious, so at least they got that part right. It also highlights the need for a smart grid and smart meters connected to the Internet so we can see how we use electricity and how we can make minor modifications to our behavior, or set clear guidelines, so that we use energy when it’s least expensive.

Smart infrastructure

Get ready for a new buzzword. I understood the idea of the “smart grid,” but take that a step further and you end up with smart infrastructure. The New York Times has the goods.

A similar pattern is emerging today, experts say, for what is being called smart infrastructure — more efficient and environmentally friendlier systems for managing, among other things, commuter traffic, food distribution, electric grids and waterways. This time, the crucial technological ingredients include low-cost sensors and clever software for analytics and visualization, as well as computing firepower.

Wireless sensors can now collect and transmit information from almost any object — for instance, roads, food crates, utility lines and water pipes. And the improved software helps interpret the huge flow of information, so raw data becomes useful knowledge to monitor and optimize transport and other complex systems. The efficiency payoff, experts say, should translate into big reductions in energy used, greenhouse gases emitted and natural resources consumed.

The implications are staggering. First, this sounds like a great business, and companies like IBM, Cisco and GE are all over this. I’m also guessing that storage companies like EMC have a bright future here as well.

More importantly, we’re entering a new era where waste and inefficiencies are no longer accepted. The culture has changed. Also, business has changed. In today’s world, the costs associated with waste cannot be ignored.

We have a down-payment on a new smart grid with the stimulus package passed earlier this year. Hopefully, the concept of smart infrastructure will influence the way the government spends money of all projects going forward. Now that we have an administration that believes in science, the prospects are much brighter.

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