White House launches 4-pillar smart grid plan

Monday - 6/13/2011, 9:02pm EDT

By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

In a new policy framework released Monday, the Obama administration pledged more coordination to try to pave the way forward for a modernized national electric grid.

As the administration's new report points out, half of all states have already created their own smart grid policies. The White House wants to help set a national strategy that could harmonize those individual state efforts, and create a common set of expectations for industry.

As in other strategy and policy documents the administration has released recently, such as those dealing with online identities and critical infrastructure, the emphasis is on the federal government as a facilitator rather than primarily as a regulator.

"Certainly if the federal government tells you to do something, your backs bristle. I understand that," Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said at a White House event Monday. "So here's the good news: we have no authority. But we can facilitate solutions."

The White House plan breaks down into four areas. One is helping to make states and energy companies make smart investments in smart grid technology. It calls for the Energy Department to develop studies of electric consumer behavior gleaned from smart grid demonstration projects that the government funded through the Recovery Act so that they can deploy technologies that have been proven to work.

Second, the National Institute of Standards and Technology will oversee new, open standards for industry to use in developing smart grid distribution systems as well as future technologies that that will plug into the grid. NIST already is playing a role in developing cybersecurity standards for smart grid systems.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that will create national markets for smart energy devices.

"It will promote plug-and-play operability for devices like appliances that can use energy when it's the lowest cost," Holdren said.

He said the plan also presses state and federal regulators to make sure utilities make available to consumers all the information the new grid technology is capable of generating.

"We want to give consumers access to their own energy use information in consumer and computer-friendly formats, so they can take advantage of new tools and services to manage that use," he said. "With proper privacy safeguards and consumer protections, a smarter electricity system can benefit everyone."

Fourth, Holdren said, the administration wants to make sure the future technology-enabled grid is secure from cyber threats.

"We're going to secure the grid by making sure grid operators have access to actionable threat information, by supporting research and development for improved cybersecurity measures, and by working with private sector stakeholders to establish accountability for meeting cybersecurity standards," he said.

Chu said cybersecurity needs to be on the front burner throughout the deployment of smart grid technologies, and the administration intends to help make sure it's a high priority. He said integrating more technology into the electric grid introduces new vulnerabilities if it's not done right.

"As you go to even more automatic controls, there could be some really serious consequences if this is not designed and put in a secure place," Chu said. "We know of examples of some countries mucking with another country's grid because of some dispute over a bill, for example. This is something very serious."

But Chu said there's more to modernizing the electric grid than merely plugging in smart electric meters. He said the basic infrastructure across the country needs to be upgraded. In many ways, he said, the grid today doesn't look fundamentally different than it did in the 19th century.

In contrast, China, which is building a modern electric grid designed to handle the country's remote and variable renewable energy sources, has infrastructure that in some cases is capable of transmitting much more energy much more efficiently.

"China has the highest voltage distribution system in the world," he said. "They can transmit renewable energy from the western part of the country to the eastern part, 1,200 miles, and lose less than 7 percent of the energy. If we had to transmit energy 1,200 miles on our grid, we would lose 80 percent of the energy."

Moving energy over long distances is a key capability for using more renewable electricity, as the administration has pledged to do, because those large energy sources tend to be located far from many of the nation's large population centers, as in solar installations in the desert southwest or giant wind farms in North and South Dakota.