Obama's Vision of Smart Power Grid Rising, Albeit Slowly

Michael Grunwald is author of new forthcoming book 'The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era'.

Published: 15-Aug-2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. - America’s power center, recently experienced life without power—the kind that gets generated, not the kind that gets wielded. After a nasty storm knocked out the Beltway’s electricity for days during a heat wave, power brokers of the political type complained: Didn’t President Obama promise a smarter, more reliable grid?

Yes, he did. And the blackout notwithstanding, the grid is slowly improving. In fact, its story is a nice parable about change in the Obama era. On the trail in 2008, Obama had big dreams for a digital smart grid that would self-monitor and self-heal, minimizing costly outages by diagnosing problems electronically and rerouting power around them. He envisioned a national network of high-voltage transmission lines that would connect windy and sunny areas to cities, as well as smart meters and other high-tech gizmos that would give us real-time feedback and control over our energy use. He basically wanted to merge the grid with the Internet so we could adjust our air conditioners with our iPhones when we were out of the house, program our appliances to save us energy and money and sell power from solar panels and electric cars back to our utilities.

After the election, Obama wanted his economic stimulus package to include some iconic, futuristic legacy projects to advance his long-term agenda. The smart grid seemed perfect, a modern moon mission, a 21st century version of the interstates. He suggested pouring in $100 billion. “Let’s just build it!” he told his transition team. His aides explained that that wasn’t possible or even desirable. Utilities own the grid, and they could pay to upgrade it themselves. But it would take decades to convert an analog grid to digital and string high-voltage wires nationwide. Ultimately, Obama settled for $11 billion in seed money. “There was this sense of frustration,” his former budget director Peter Orszag recalled when I interviewed him for my forthcoming book on the -stimulus, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. “Here’s the first African–American President, the economy has fallen off a cliff, history is calling, and -really? I can’t just do a smart grid?”

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