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White House plugs for cleaner, info-rich smart grid

The White House dedicates $250 million to upgrade rural grid and a push to give consumers more access to energy usage information to encourage new services.

The White House today outlined its priorities for modernizing the electricity grid, saying the smart grid is central to economic competitiveness and a cleaner energy system.

The National Science Technology Council released a report called "Building the 21st Century Grid," which was presented by Obama's top science and environmental advisers, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The White House expects to devote at least $250 million to modernize the grid in rural areas and its budget for next year calls for the creation of a "smart grid innovation hub" research center. The report says the White House's top goals for the smart grid are giving consumers access to energy information, security, standards, and a process to assess the cost effectiveness of infrastructure investments.

During a presentation at the White House, director of the White House Office and Science Technology Policy John Holdren said that the U.S. economy requires a more reliable energy system to manage stresses on the grid, such as outages and peak-time demand. New technologies, such as electric vehicles and home energy monitoring, and more renewable energy require planners to reimagine how the grid works, he said.

"New ways of generating electricity, from the biggest wind turbines to the smallest rooftop solar panels, are demanding a new degree of flexibility and adaptability," Holdren said. "Consumers deserve access to their own energy usage information in consumer and computer-friendly formats so they can take advantage of new tools and services to manage that use."

The White House is seeking to advance its smart-grid goals with new programs and through initiatives to coordinate among industry and the many state and federal agencies responsible for the grid and energy. A combination of federal and private industry investments totaled about $10 billion over the past few years.

One initiative is Grid 21, a private-sector collaborative to promote "consumer-friendly innovations" around managing home energy while ensuring privacy. The Department of Energy is also launching programs to give consumers access to detailed energy use information, including a home energy education challenge to promote efficiency.

Two of the speakers today were high-school students from California who spearheaded an energy monitoring initiative at their school. Using submeters to isolate where energy is consumed allowed the superintendent to find waste, such as leaving the air conditioning on in the gym during weekends.

In a talk, Energy Secretary Chu touched on the need to upgrade the grid for economic reasons and the possibilities of new technologies, such as high-voltage transmission lines to shuttle energy long distances with minimal losses or large energy storage systems. Ireland and Spain, he noted, already get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by balancing them with fossil fuel generation.

"Our grid right now cannot handle when renewable energy becomes the same price as fossil generation, which will happen," Chu said.

At the same time, he noted that the complexity of the grid--which encompasses power generation, long-distance transmission, and local distribution to consumers--requires changes to current regulations and ways of doing business. He said the DOE is eager to facilitate discussions among different states and regulators.

The White House intends to create a Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team to improve coordination among federal agencies, including the Energy and Interior Departments, for quicker review of renewable-energy and transmission line projects. Also, opening up access to consumer information could create new consumer services, but not all utilities have the ability or interest in communicating that information back to consumers.

"Cooperation among stakeholders will increase the return on investment in the electricity system," he said. "We see incredible opportunities for new technology."