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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.

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