Smart Grid Gains Steam in Congress

     WASHINGTON (CN) – As the Senate considers cap-and-trade legislation to fight global warming, a House subcommittee convened a hearing to learn about the smart grid, which aims to increase efficiency and reduce pollution and greenhouse gases. The project appeared to have bipartisan support. “Those of us who don’t believe that global warming is caused by carbon dioxide are still very concerned about pollution,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

     Energy company representatives and federal agencies agreed that the nation should move toward a smart grid. Speakers suggested how to promote its development, though most of the time was used simply to inform delegates about the system.
     Panelists before the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment agreed that a smart grid is expected to improve efficiency by keeping demand constant. It would let energy flow in both directions, so consumers with solar panels or wind turbines could sell power back to the utility companies, perhaps at peak hours.
     The Recovery Act applied $11 billion to the project, which is in its initial phase, except in California, which has taken the lead.
     The new technology led to some concerns that it would make the United States more vulnerable to attack.
     The hearing comes a few weeks after the House passed a cap-and-trade bill by 219-212 with almost no Republican support. The Senate is marking up that bill.
     Under the bill, polluters would be charged for carbon dioxide emissions and emissions levels would be required to drop by 83 percent by 2050.
     The definition of a smart grid is ambiguous. Cooper Power Systems Group president Michael Stoessl said that people call anything that’s happening to the grid “smart.”
     “A Smart Grid would replace the current, outdated system and employ real-time, two-way communication technologies to allow users to connect directly with power suppliers,” National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability George Arnold said.
     It would allow consumers and utilities to monitor and control where and when energy is used. Ideally, consumers would be able to see the cost of the energy they use, which fluctuates with demand. They could postpone running the dishwasher, for example, until demand falls.
     The greater control would allow the utilities to cycle air conditioners, or if customers allow it, to run household functions automatically once energy demand from the grid is low, or to sense an overheating transformer and divert the load.
     California is developing a smart grid.
     “We’re certainly at the forefront,” Paul De Martini said proudly, vice president of Southern California Edison. He said the state needs to have many aspects of the grid operational by 2020 to meet its greenhouse gas reduction quotas.
     The witnesses had difficulty in estimating a national time frame to implement the grid, but Martini said California will have smart meters for all customers in just over three years.
     The state is also ramping up its reliance on renewable fuels, and is expected to generate 4,500 megawatts of energy from wind in the next five years.
     With a smart grid, the peaks of energy demand would be leveled out and fewer power plants would have to be built.
     “In a perfect world, we could reduce peak by 20 percent,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Suedeen Kelly said, calling that “very significant.”
     This way, the grid could use more solar and wind power, which are intermittent sources of energy.
     Representatives appeared excited about the financial and energy savings, as well as the pollution reductions. Those who are concerned about global warming expressed support for the grid’s expected reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
     Maryland Republican Roscoe Bartlett expressed concerns that a smart grid would give the country another technology to rely on. “The smarter you make the grid, the more vulnerable we are,” he said.
     The worry stems from Bartlett’s meeting with Russian diplomats over the conflict in Kosovo. One of the Russian diplomats, frustrated, threatened that if Russia really wanted to hurt the United States, it could detonate a nuclear bomb at high altitude and shut down communications and power for half a year.
     The Russian was referring to an electromagnetic pulse attack, which involves a high-intensity burst of electromagnetic energy.
     Such an attack “could wreak havoc on the nation’s electronic systems – shutting down power grids, sources, and supply mechanisms. An EMP attack on the United States could irreparably cripple the coun­try,” the Heritage Foundation reported.
     Bartlett said a smart grid should be built only if it has a magnetic shield.
     One of the repeated recommendations was that federal money go toward a model system to work out any knots before the project is taken nationwide.

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