- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

Thomas Alva Edison, meet the Internet.

More than a century after Edison invented a reliable light bulb, the nation’s electricity-distribution system, an aging spider web of power lines, is poised to move into the digital age.

The “smart grid” has become the buzz of the electric-power industry, at the White House and among members of Congress. President Obama says it’s essential to boost development of wind and solar power, get people to use less energy and tackle climate change.

What smart-grid visionaries see coming are home thermostats and individual appliances that adjust automatically based on the cost of power, and water heaters that can draw power from a neighbor’s rooftop solar panel. They see a time when, on a scorching-hot day, a plug-in hybrid electric car charges one minute and a few moments later sends electricity back into the grid to help avert a brownout.

Also coming are utilities that get instant feedback on a transformer outage or shift easily among energy sources from wind turbines to coal-burning power plants and back to the turbines when the wind begins to blow again.

And, from miles away, power companies will peer into homes and businesses, then automatically lower thermostats or adjust power use, depending on demand and prearranged agreements.

“It’s the marriage of information technology and automation technology with the existing electricity network. This is the energy Internet,” said Bob Gilligan, vice president for transmission at GE Energy, one of many companies aggressively pursuing smart-grid development. “There are going to be applications 10 years from now that you and I have no idea that we’re going to want or need or think are essential to our lives.”

Hundreds of technology companies, fledgling venture capitalists, longtime corporate icons and almost every major electric-utility company want to be part of the grid modernization. Interest only intensified after Mr. Obama included $4.5 billion for development of the smart grid in his economic-recovery package.

The merger of flowing electrons with the computer-driven information revolution won’t be cheap, nor easy. Who’s going to pay the bill? Will consumers get the payback they are promised? Might some people view utilities and their “smart meters” as being too intrusive?

Demonstration projects, including the smart meters installed in thousands of homes, are cropping up across the country. But the smart grid as seen by Mr. Gilligan and others probably will take years to develop and could cost $75 billion.

Overall transmission modernization, including new higher-capacity lines along with the communications technology, could cost as much as $1 trillion, according to some estimates.

Even agreeing on what a smart grid is can be complicated. It’s different things to different people.

Yet to understand the changes being considered means first looking at today’s transmission system.

“Sadly, if Edison were alive today, he’d be all too familiar with the current system we rely on. Not that much has changed” in 127 years, said Carol Browner, the White House adviser on energy and climate. At a recent energy conference, she described that system as congested, disjointed and out of date.

Others compare the hundreds of thousands of miles of power lines that crisscross the country to a river flowing down a hill: an inefficient one-way movement of electrons from power plant to consumer. It uses primitive technologies - cables, meters, circuit breakers, fuses and rudimentary monitors. But there is little way to provide any feedback of information to the power company running the system or to those buying the electricity.

“The heart of a smart grid is to make the grid more flexible, to more easily control the flow of electrons, and make it more efficient and reliable,” said Greg Scheu, head of the power-production division at ABB North America, a leading grid-technology provider.

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