Obama's "Smart Grid" Could Become "Clean Grid"

President hands out grants, hints at clean energy system

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President Barack Obama handed out a passel of money today for "smart grid" projects, much of it going towards house electrical meters that can be controlled by power companies. The meters allow companies to manipulate how much electricity each house uses at any given time — useful in times of power shortages and for being able to shift power from where it’s least needed to where it’s most needed. The grants also went to  modernizing various components of the grid to make it "smarter."

The federal stimulus grants, while not directly funding clean energy alternatives, are aimed at improving how the nation uses our current electrical transmission set-up, so that such alternatives as solar and wind can be more easily integrated. To emphasize the smart grid connection to alternative energy sources, the president made the announcement while standing in a new, Florida solar energy "farm." Legal efforts by Earthjustice paved the way for the facility.

Clearly, this is just a start towards a highly sophisticated electrical distribution and consumption system. To that end, a Wall Street Journal graphic illustrates a "smart grid city" experiment being conducted in Boulder, Co. In the experiment, smart metering in connection with solar powered battery storage allows total manipulation of a house’s electrical input and appliances, even to the extent that the house could be feeding the power grid.

Participants in the Boulder experiment are variously enthralled, perplexed and even alarmed, all for the same basic reason: an outside force has spiderwebbed your home with controls that on one hand let you make choices on personal power consumption, but can strip you of those choices in a millisecond to serve its needs. The "Orwellian" fears seem preposterous in the face of what households face today from uncontrollable blackouts and brownouts, and total dependence on a antiquated, wasteful, centralized, pollution-belching system.

Notably absent in today’s funding handout is any expansion or re-making of the transmission lines system. Right now, the system is built to distribute electricity from mostly coal-fired power plants. Shifting to solar and wind will require new transmission corridors to where these clean energy sources are sited — and that inevitably means shifting political support away from the intrenched fossil fuels industry. The inevitable conflict is even now being played out on the East Coast, where Earthjustice and its allies are opposing a new transmission corridor that would lead to major increases in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

From 2006–2014, Terry was managing editor for Earthjustice's blog, online monthly newsletter and print Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.