Obama Used His Power So That Future Storms Won’t Knock Out Your Power

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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.

21 comments
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bzelbub
bzelbub

Underground wires always make sense until some weekend warrior decides to plant a tree or put in a pond. Also earthquakes have a way of changing what is underground as well as above ground. How are the repairs to the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral  progressing by the way?

Expatmom
Expatmom

We should have taken down DC's power lines a long time ago!!!! I have lived in Europe, SE Asia amp; the Middle East. All had underground power supply! But we claim it costs too much! Make jobs! Pay salaries! Stop paying huge bonuses for not doing anything!!!!!!ARRGGGHHH!

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

And how many days have you been without power  in the East?  Attention eastern America: Do not reelect anyone who is against upgrading your electircal grid.  It puts Americans to work and helps everyone.

f_galton
f_galton

We could afford these sorts of things if we didn't waste so much money on welfare for ghetto hoochies.

Steve0T
Steve0T

 The US spends around $70 bill on Food stamps every year. Although not small, it's only 10% of the stim. bill mentioned above. Medicare, on the other hand, was half a trillion.

Quit spouting the usual Tea-bagger nonsense. The tea-baggers are all in favor of cutting entitlements, except the ones they themselves enjoy.

Diecash1
Diecash1

Can't say that I've ever heard the DOD called "ghetto hoochies" before.

vstillwell
vstillwell

It seems to me the only people who hated the stimulus bill were Republican baby boomers. They hate investing in this country so other generations can get ahead. They are the most short-sighted, dumbest human beings walking the face of this earth. Maybe Ronnie will rise from the grave and lead them to the promised land like Moses lead the Jews. I hope so. Get them the he!! out of here. 

bstockinger
bstockinger

Sooner or later utilities with all of these above ground utilities,  are going to have to bury a good portion of them if they want to eliminate these wind related outages.  Takes are of the ice related outages too.  I can't think of the last time our power was lost due to a wind problem.  Most of our power lines with the exception being the large transmission lines (I think those over  69 kV) seem to be buried.   Yes they are expense but so are these repeated outages.

SmilingSmartBlonde
SmilingSmartBlonde

Michael Grunwald

Fantastic article. A nationwide smart grid seems like such a positive development. Kudos to you as a reporter  for straying from the ubiquitous "Obamacare issue" and moving on to other issues. Let's focus on solving problems and in the process let's revitalize the economy.

NicHautamaki
NicHautamaki

So let me get this straight.  In order to repair/refurbish/upgrade the entire American electrical grid, the federal government allocated 1/70th the amount of money it spends on the military?  How awesome would America's power grid be if it made a 1 time expenditure of even 50% of the military's annual budget?

Pnnto
Pnnto

So you are suggesting "nation building" here at home? That's just crazy talk!

NicHautamaki
NicHautamaki

There I go again, always trying to build the wrong nations =[

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

It would be beneficial to invest $ into ALL our infrastructure.  Our bridges are crumbling, water resources are getting polluted thx to fracking, sewer systems are antiquated, and sinkholes are popping up all over the place.  Stim $ put to work in these places will guarantee employment for tens of thousands for decades.

But all this increases the deficit and debt and we can't pay it off by putting people to work.  Thanks, Republicals.  Thanks a whole bunch!

Tommy3134
Tommy3134

 Obama gave former Florida Republican Governor Charlie Crist millions for shovel ready jobs to fix roads and bridges. Crist turned around and used the money for school budgets and his rainy day fund. Crist did not create any jobs.  Crist was not re-elected. Obama still gets the blame for the failures of his stimulus package in Florida. Go figure.

bstockinger
bstockinger

 How did Crist to that?  I didn't know any of the road and bridge money could be transferred to schools etc. 

nflfoghorn
nflfoghorn

Point taken, but he didn't run for re-election, either. He ran for Senate.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Utilities own most of the grid, and it will take time to convert from analog to digital..."

Not to mention money, to bury archaic overhead power lines, the downing of which crippled much of our nation's capital. And PEPCO has shareholders to answer to. Customers, not so much. Ain't the free market grand.

ARTraveler
ARTraveler

How many of the neighborhoods fought tree-trimming exercises that would have removed overhead tree limbs that could knock out a single home or an entire neighborhood?  Tree trimming won't keep trees from being uprooted but they can stop some of the smaller black-outs and no power is no power, no matter the reason.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"Tree trimming won't keep trees from being uprooted but they can stop

some of the smaller black-outs and no power is no power, no matter the

reason."

True. But if you've seen what they're left to look at every day of their lives, you can understand why they object...until the power goes out.

http://www.rgj.com/article/201...