There’s good news and bad news in President Obama’s announcement Wednesday of 100 grants totaling $3.4 billion to build a smarter electric grid.
The good news is the grants. We desperately need to upgrade our low voltage electricity distribution system. Not only will it allow us to make better use of that network but it will encourage a new era in which households and businesses can interact with the grid: as consumers, as producers, and when electric vehicles become widespread, sometimes acting as storage facilities.
President Obama made his announcement, appropriately enough, next to Florida Power and Light’s 25 MW solar array, an array that can link into the lower voltage lines and generate sufficient electricity to satisfy the needs of 3,000 households.
The bad news is that President Obama continues to conflate the need for a smart grid with the need for a new national high voltage grid. He continues to misuse the analogy of the interstate highway system:
“Now, it’s time to make the same kind of investment in the way our energy travels — to build a clean energy superhighway that…will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago.”
But a transmission superhighway is a one-way street for centralized power stations; it is not a smart grid. Nor is it smart policy.
As the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows in its recently released report, Energy Self-Reliant States, Illinois is perfectly capable of serving the needs of Chicago without importing electricity from South Dakota. Indeed, the report shows that by using in-state renewable fuels, over 60 percent of U.S. states could be energy self-sufficient and all states could meet their present renewable energy mandates or goals.
“Renewable energy by its very nature is available everywhere and in most cases it is economical to use it where it falls”, says John Farrell, co-author of the Energy Self-Reliant States report and senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “A smart grid will encourage that dynamic. A new national high voltage grid may well undermine it.”