Al Gore: Our next power grid will be like the Net

The former vice president takes the stage at VentureBeat's GreenBeat conference in San Mateo, Calif. to discuss some of the challenges ahead for moving to the smart grid.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read
Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore discusses his hopes and fears for the future of the smart grid. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

SAN MATEO, Calif.--Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore hopes that America's next-generation power grid will be a lot like the Internet. Or at least that's the plan.

How close we get to that goal depends on what happens in the next five years, Gore said in a speech here on Thursday evening at blog VentureBeat's GreenBeat conference, where he outlined many of the challenges the United States faces in upgrading its power grid. Along the way, he made comparisons to how the advent of the so-called smart grid will enable the kind of solutions and business innovation that the Internet brought during the 1990s.

"The analogy to the Internet is quite an exact one. Not completely exact, but it's very relevant for lots of reasons. We are moving inexorably toward a widely distributed energy generation and storage model. We are still locked into the old centralized energy generation model," Gore said. "The rapid development of new generations of new smart storage systems are going to make a tremendous difference in connection with the smart grids." Those systems are designed to enable easier storage of unused electricity for peak times, when supplying it to large groups of customers can be difficult and more expensive.

Gore also foresees an entirely new set of devices and instruments to help utilities and consumers control and monitor usage--technology and business models that may not yet have been imagined. "(It's) much the same way the Internet made it possible to see this generation of Internet-ready devices that did not even exist before the Internet began to build out," Gore said.

There are a few obstacles on the way there, though, the main one being a mix of outdated legislation and hardware that makes up America's current electricity grid. For example, the average estimated age of transformers currently in use 42 years, longer than their projected run of service. Updating or replacing them with something that will work with the smart grid requires money, along with a plan to back it up.

But Gore says such a plan is not so simple. "In many states...regulators and legislators still have these antiquated laws and regulations," Gore said. "We're still locked in a way of thinking about the grid that is based on the assumptions that these large coal fire-generating plants and other centralized generating plants [are] connected, always and in real time, to consumers, and the world is passing that model by."

Al Gore thinks the smart grid will usher in the same kind of business innovation the Internet brought. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Gore highlighted the relative comfort of the energy industry, noting that energy accounted for roughly 16 percent to 17 percent of the U.S. economy, and that attempting to convince those in charge to invest in the smart grid is an uphill battle. "The good news is that it's split somewhat," Gore said. "There are many business leaders in that sector, and I want to compliment some of those electric utilities, some of them here, who have become a part of the movement for change."

One of those is Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which recently began rolling out smart digital electricity meters of its own. However, that move has already been put into question by customers whose bills have skyrocketed since the changeover. Some of those in Bakersfield, Calif., where PG&E began its pilot deployment, have filed a class action lawsuit against the utility.

But Gore pointed out that no transition would be easy. "There's an old African proverb that some of you have heard: 'If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,'" Gore said. "The truth is, we have to go far quickly, which means we've got to get our act together quickly."