The Beltway is always obsessed with power, but these days it’s particularly obsessed with power—not the power that gets wielded and exercised, but the power that gets generated and distributed, because it’s currently in short supply in Washington after a nasty storm. Suddenly, commentators on the right as well as the left are sounding alarms about the pitiful state of America’s electric grid. They’re right, of course. But they haven’t mentioned a certain piece of federal legislation—if you’ve read anything I’ve written in recent years, then you probably know what I’m talking about—that made unprecedented investments in upgrading the grid.
Yes, I’m once again talking about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February 2009, President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill. (If you share this obsession of mine, you should maybe get psychiatric help, and you should definitely pre-order my upcoming book.) The stimulus poured over $11 billion into grid improvements, including $4.5 billion for digital meters and other “smart grid” investments that will help improve the reliability of our century-old electric network. The stimulus grants have already financed over 10 million smart meters; Pepco, the utility villain of the recent “derecho,” received $34 million to help install them in every Washington home.
During their post-election transition, Obama and Vice President Biden wanted to use $100 billion worth of stimulus money to build a nationwide smart grid; as I’ve written, their aides explained that wouldn’t be possible, or even desirable. Utilities own most of the grid, and it will take time to convert from analog to digital, from a haphazard network reminiscent of the phone systems where operators manually connected every call to a self-monitoring, self-healing system that will reroute power around trouble spots. A smart grid would also be able to integrate much more renewable power, enable homeowners with solar roofs and electric cars to sell juice back to their utilities, and do a much better job of keeping the lights on.
Obviously, the grid hasn’t yet gotten where it needs to go. Smart meters can’t do much when the rest of the grid is still dumb; so far, their biggest contribution has been eliminating the need for meter readers. And it will take decades to build a true smart grid. But stimulus investments in sensors, routers, “syncrophasors” and other unsexy electrical equipment are already providing tangible benefits; for example, I’ve written about how a $200 million smart-grid grant to Florida Power & Light helped prevent an overloaded transformer from blacking out the 2011 Orange Bowl. The public sector jump-start also helped inspire a flurry of private-sector investments, with familiar behemoths providing the hardware while nerdy startups invent the software. One executive at Cisco told me the smart grid could be an even bigger business opportunity than the Internet.
That’s not much of a consolation to all those Washington residents without power this week. The problem with infrastructure investments is that nobody notices them when they work. But by the time the next derecho hits, the grid will be in better shape to handle it. Nobody will notice that, either, but that’s the whole point of infrastructure. And the point of power.