Smart funding for the smart grid

Photo by Larry Johnson via Flickr

According to asso­ciate pro­fessor Edmund Yeh of the elec­trical engi­neering depart­ment, the US loses about $100 bil­lion each year due to black­outs in the energy grid. When the power goes out, so does the economy.

The cur­rent grid is based on pre­dictable sources of energy, but unpre­dictable black­outs still occur. Renew­able energy — like wind and solar — will intro­duce a whole new ele­ment of ran­dom­ness into the system. That’s because we can’t rely on the weather to behave itself (as we in New Eng­land, who’ve barely seen an inch of snow this year, well know).

So how can we expect promises like “35% of our energy will come from renew­able sources by 2030″ when the cur­rent energy grid really can’t sup­port any more randomness?

Yeh thinks the chal­lenge lies in the hands of infor­ma­tion net­work sci­en­tists, who “deal with ran­dom­ness all the time.”

After Pres­i­dent Obama’s recent State of the Union address, I checked back in with Pro­fessor Yeh to see what he thought about the President’s com­ments regarding the power grid. Here’s what he had to say:

I was glad to hear the President’s emphasis on energy and his men­tion of the need to invest in the smart grid.

The Pres­i­dent noted that Amer­ican energy secu­rity has been enhanced in recent years by a sub­stan­tial rise in domestic oil and nat­ural gas pro­duc­tion, made pos­sible largely by hydraulic frac­turing and hor­i­zontal drilling tech­niques. Cru­cially, the Pres­i­dent pointed out that this tech­nology was the result of government-​​sponsored research in shale gas begun 30 years ago.   This offers an impor­tant lesson for us today, in an era where there is a global race for lead­er­ship in new energy tech­nolo­gies. The recent failure of a number of Amer­ican solar energy com­pa­nies is just one symptom of the intense global com­pe­ti­tion in the renew­able energy sector. Coun­tries such as China and Ger­many are investing on a mas­sive scale in new energy, and a lack of lead­er­ship in the US will have serious con­se­quences for our eco­nomic future.  

I serve on the tech­nical pro­gram com­mittee for IEEE Smart Grid World Forum, which took place in Bei­jing last Sep­tember. During the forum, China’s State Grid Corp, the dom­i­nant state utility, announced plans to invest $250 bil­lion in upgrading China’s elec­tric power infra­struc­ture over the next five years, of which $45 bil­lion is specif­i­cally allo­cated to smart grid tech­nology. Between 2016 and 2020, yet another $240 bil­lion will be spent on the Chi­nese power grid (including another $45 bil­lion for smart grid). China will use this enor­mous invest­ment to build up a first-​​rate power grid infra­struc­ture in order to meet its expo­nen­tially increasing energy demand, dra­mat­i­cally decrease its depen­dence on coal, exploit its geo­graph­i­cally dis­trib­uted renew­able energy sources (solar and wind) and thereby reduce carbon emis­sions. Fur­ther­more, China fully intends to use this mas­sive new infra­struc­ture to influ­ence the devel­op­ment of global smart grid tech­nology stan­dards, the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of smart grid tech­nolo­gies and the devel­op­ment of the new energy economy as a whole.

The power grid in the US is anti­quated, decen­tral­ized and suf­fers from chronic under­in­vest­ment. While it may be imprac­tical to expect infra­struc­ture invest­ment on the scale under­taken by China, the U.S. gov­ern­ment should take a deci­sive leading role in funding long-​​term research and devel­op­ment, defining tech­no­log­ical stan­dards, coor­di­nating action among the some 3000 util­i­ties in this country and cre­ating incen­tives for pri­vate invest­ment in the smart grid.  

As the Pres­i­dent pointed out, America had in the past the vision to invest in daring infra­struc­ture projects such as the Eisen­hower inter­state highway system and the ARPANET. These under­tak­ings formed the crit­ical infra­struc­ture for our modern economy. The new energy economy, with all its impli­ca­tions for sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth and job cre­ation, cannot be built without a first-​​rate smart power grid. If we make the proper invest­ments today, then our economy and envi­ron­ment stand to ben­efit for decades and cen­turies to come. If we do not, then other coun­tries will take the lead and Amer­i­cans will have far less say in defining our own energy and eco­nomic future.