Power distribution and broadband are not generally considered to go hand-in-hand in the effort to have America become more energy efficient, but they do.
As part of the federal government’s stimulus package, President Obama requested money for the Department of Energy (DoE) to fund smart grid demonstration projects. In October, 2009, the DoE announced the first round of projects which amounted to $3.4 billion for the installation of smart meters in homes. In fact the grants will allow utilities to install 18 million smart meters to about 13 percent of the nation's homes.
Smart meters will allow utilities to monitor power usage on a house-by-house basis and will allow customers to do things like raise or lower household temperatures, water heaters, and start washing machines and dishwashers at times of the day when power use is not a peak.
Power needs follow the sun. When families on the East coast are waking and using power for showers, breakfast, and household lighting; families on the West coast are still fast asleep. As the sun moves west, the power needs shift with it. At night, the sequence reverses itself; when East coast families are “powering down” for the night, many West coast families are doing the evening dishes and doing a few loads of laundry.
A fully-implemented smart grid will allow power companies to shift power very efficiently from where it is being produced – whether at a coal-fired power plant in Beverly, Ohio; a wind farm in central Oklahoma, or a solar array in New Mexico – to where it is needed, when it is needed.
The DoE’s grants last Fall included new transformers to be able to utilize new technologies to help power companies begin that process.
The smart grid will utilize broadband technologies which means homes must have the capacity to connect to the internet via a high-speed link. Many smaller communities in Ohio and elsewhere are attempting to improve the availability of broadband to their residents and businesses in conjunction with the major network providers.
This effort is generally known as “the last mile” although it may actually be the “last 20 yards” between a fiber optic line down the middle of the street and a home or business. In urban areas the “last mile” is likely to be readily available and the homeowner need only call the cable or phone company to be connected. In rural areas, where the distance between homes can be great, there may have to be additional government grants to get those houses and businesses connected via broadband.
Much of the national electrical grid is exactly the same as it was when Thomas Edison helped design it. Modern technology can provide better service at a lower price – both in terms of money and in terms of air and water quality. Broadband is crucial to helping us get there.
Jim McGregor is Executive Director for Ohio League of Conservation Voters