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White House unveils smart grid strategy, $250 million in loans

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Filed: Country: Philippines

WASHINGTON, D.C. — If Thomas Edison could drop into 2011 and take a look at our progress, he would likely be dazzled by the smartphone, high definition video, and digital storage for music and movies — all decedents of technologies that he pioneered and championed. However, something Edison would recognize all-too-well and would likely be puzzled at how little his creation had changed would be our electrical grid.

That's the narrative that White House officials used to help sell the idea of revolutionizing the U.S. electrical grid at an event for the press, energy industry leaders, and technology industry executives on Monday in Washington.

Led by the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, the White House unveiled its strategy — and $250 million in loans — for building a 21st century 'smart grid' as a catalyst to make power less expensive, minimize outages, unlock next generation power sources, and empower citizens to monitor and manage their own usage.

If these plans become a reality, it will open up new jobs and business opportunities for a wave of technologists and engineers.

As part of the event, the National Science and Technology Council released a new report called "A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future." This report, along with the rest of the White House's smart grid materials and its presentation on Monday, are packed with details on the current challenges and obstacles and the ways the U.S. can overcome them.

But a lot of the information is locked away in bureaucratic and legal language. So here is my list of bullet points on what the Obama administration is trying to accomplish:

  1. A better grid: Upgrade the U.S. electrical infrastructure to drastically improve storage and transmission. Creating standards will be a critical part of the plan.
  2. Tap tech: Use information technology to infuse intelligence and visibility into the power grid. This will enable utilities to better monitor and predict outages and recover more quickly. It will also drive better efficiency and planning overall.
  3. Citizen power: Enable consumers to have easy access to their own energy usage and better ways to control and self-regulate it in order to save money and energy. Smart meters are key.
  4. New energy: Prepare the 'smart grid' to better handle new forms of power — wind, solar, geothermal, etc. — that are going to be an increasingly larger proportion of the pie.

Two big obstacles that the U.S. has to overcome:

  1. Innovator's dilemma: Since the U.S. is where the modern electrical grid was born, this country has an old, well-established infrastructure with a large installed base. Changing the stuff that is already in use and is critical to daily life is painful and expensive. It's like trying to repair an airplane while it's in the middle of a cross-continental flight.
  2. Too many cooks in the kitchen: Lots of different states, municipalities, and companies have control and regulation over the way the electrical grid works across the U.S., and so there are a lot of different stakeholders who have a say in how things are done. As a result, any sweeping national changes are almost impossible to push. It takes a lot of buy-in and consensus-building.

The second issue deserves a little extra attention. Later in the day Monday, president Obama, speaking at the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness in Durham, North Carolina, said that when he first came into office the smart grid issue was something he wanted to move quickly on.

But: "I was rapidly informed that the problem wasn't capital… The problem was the patchwork of local jurisdictions," he said, adding that what's needed is to create a local, state, and federal agreement on energy and grid standards so that utilities "don't have to guess" when they are dealing with different jurisdictions to upgrade the grid.

This was confirmed by Bob Shapard, CEO of the Texas utility Oncor, who said that energy companies were ready to invest in upgrading the infrastructure. "This doesn't take government money," he said. "If we have the clarity, the utilities can raise all the capital."

So, that leaves the Obama administration to herd the cats. It has to get government agencies on the same page, convince private and public entities to agree on technological standards, get local and state governments to cede some of their jurisdiction to help create a national network, and convince citizens of the benefits of self-managing their own energy use.

It's no wonder that small countries like Ireland and totalitarian governments like China are moving a lot faster that the U.S. in modernizing their energy infrastructure.

Still, energy Secretary Steven Chu succinctly summed what's at stake:

America cannot build a 21st century economy with a 20th century electricity system. By working with states, industry leaders, and the private sector, we can build a clean, smart, national electricity system that will create jobs, reduce energy use, and expand renewable energy production.

For more details on the U.S. smart grid plans, read:


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Filed: Country: Vietnam

We do need to do something about our exposure to solar flares. I've heard once every 200 years the planet gets hit with a burst of solar activity strong enough to cripple the power grid. Wasn't a problem when the last one happened but when the next one comes..not good.

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Filed: K-1 Visa Country: Thailand

We do need to do something about our exposure to solar flares. I've heard once every 200 years the planet gets hit with a burst of solar activity strong enough to cripple the power grid. Wasn't a problem when the last one happened but when the next one comes..not good.

You were saying?

Solar Flares Could Cripple Earth's Tech Infrastructure in 2013

By Eric Mack, PCWorld Jun 9, 2011 7:46 AM

This week's solar flare will likely go unnoticed by most people on Earth, but NASA says that might not be the case two years from now, when a peak in solar activity could cause trillions of dollars in damage to our high-tech infrastructure.

The sun released a huge solar flare Tuesday, shooting a bunch of radiation in our direction. While the Earth isn't expected to take a direct hit from the flare, it could rub up against the planet's electromagnetic field on Thursday, possibly disrupting radio and satellite transmissions, not to mention creating some spectacular auroral light displays for those in the north.

Solar Flares Could Cripple Earth's Tech Infrastructure in 2013Solar weather runs in cycles, and the current cycle is expected to peak in 2013.NASA is calling the flare medium-sized and the biggest one seen in the last five years, but it's nothing compared to something called the "Carrington Event" in 1859, a huge solar flare that set telegraph machines on fire and produced an auroral glow in many parts of the world bright enough to read by. Even when telegraph operators disconnected their batteries, "aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted," according to a NASA historical account.

Solar weather runs in cycles, and the current cycle is expected to peak in 2013, and it's during that time that we're most likely to see something like the Carrington Event. Only problem is that if such an event happened today, it would cause much, much more damage than it did in the 19th century.

"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity," Richard Fisher, head of NASA's Heliophysics Division, said last year. "At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms."

Basically, if the sun were to send a massive shipment of electromagnetic radiation our way, it could knock out the backbone of our digital civilization, taking power grids, satellites and other communications systems offline for hours, possibly even days. There's also the possibility for damage to that infrastructure that could run into the trillions of dollars.

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