Washington state will get big chunk of “smart grid” money

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

With fanfare and news releases in both Washingtons, the Obama Administration on Tuesday announced it will invest $88.8 million worth of federal stimulus money in this state to develop smart grid technologies to use electricity more efficiently and cut customers' power bills.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., described it as an effort to "infuse intelligence into our electrical grid" at a time when the Northwest's power transmission system is starting to show its age.

But the much-touted grant raises a question: Is the United States keeping pace with its major economic partners in developing green technologies and using electricity more efficiently?

All told, the U.S. Department of Energy will spend $178 million on a Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project, one of 16 such demonstrations across the country.

"The smart grid is a system of intelligent, two-way communication technologies designed to improve power delivery and reliability and increase efficiency," the Battelle Memorial Institute, which will manage the demonstration project, said in a statement.

The Northwest study will engage more than 60,000 metered customers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. It will test new systems to enhance the power grid’s reliability and performance.

The project could create about 1,500 jobs, a point stressed as Cantwell and regional officials announced the grant.

"We as a region have no excuse not to lead the world in green jobs and green technology" said about-to-be-sworn in King County Executive Dow Constantine.

But a tag line could be attached: Not so fast.

The electrical grid is an example of how the United States has neglected its infrastructure in recent years.

"China is building an 800-kilovolt super grid connecting all parts of the country to the most sophisticated smart transmission and distribution network for electricity the world has ever seen," former Vice President Al Gore reports in his new book "Our Choice."

The U.S. power grid is getting older, witness power outages on both coasts in recent years. The average age of a substation transformer in America is 42 years, beyond its projected useful life.

The highest voltage used in the U.S. at present is 765 kilovolts, although there are few lines to accommodate it.

"Even when operating properly, the U.S. grid loses more electricity during transmission than modern state-of-the-art electrical grids," Gore writes.

Building a modern super grid will allow the deferral or elimination of tens of billions of dollars for new centralized generating plants, transmission lines, substations and other distribution assets.

U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, a Nobel laureate, spoke along similar lines on Tuesday.

"This (money) will be used to show how Smart Grid technologies can be applied to whole systems to promote energy savings for consumers, increase energy efficiency and foster the growth of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power," said Chu.

The Electric Power Research Institute predicts that full use of Smart Grid technologies could reduce electricity use more than 4 percent by 2030. Businesses and consumers would save $20.4 billion.

In Washington, the $88.8 million represents about half of the total planned five year investment in the Northwest.

A 20-member team, drawn from the U.S. Dept. of Energy, Bonneville Power Administration, Battelle, utilities and the state's two major universities will oversee the project.

Twelve major utilities, involving both small cities (Ellensburg) and big cities (Seattle) will participate in the project.

"We can help lead the nation in (green) job creation . . . and create more U.S. jobs by winning in the international market, particularly China," Cantwell said.

Cantwell said she has conferred with senior Obama administration officials on the prospect of "beefing up" the stimulus plan by offering tax credits to industries that develop green jobs.

About $9.6 million of the $88.8 million will go to a project at the University of Washington. Seattle City Light and the UW will pay half its cost, with federal money footing the rest of the bill.

Smart meters will monitor electrical use in about 200 UW buildings. This is so university staff can monitor electrical use; figure out if something goes off line, or if too much power is going to empty buildings.

"You want to deliver the right amount of electricity at the right time to the right spot on campus," said Scott Thomsen of City Light.