Rise of the Smart Grid

Obama's plan for a state-of-the-art electrical grid is gaining power bit by digital bit

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Illustration by James Yang for TIME

Washington, 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?”

The frustration only mounted after the stimulus passed. The grid money got snarled in bureaucratic morasses, and the initial investments in smart meters actually inspired a backlash—partly because of unfounded fears about radiation and partly because smart meters aren’t that helpful when the grid remains dumb. And their main up-front benefit was their ability to replace human meter readers, an inconvenient stimulus message.

But behind the scenes, Obama’s billions are gradually upgrading the grid. Utilities now receive updates on transmission lines 30 times a second instead of every two seconds. They are also expanding transmission, even though electricity use has yet to recover to prerecession levels. “You wouldn’t expect the industry to be building new wires left and right, but there’s a huge amount of activity,” says Peter Fox-Penner of the Brattle Group. Meanwhile, stimulus investments in sensors, auto-mated substations, “synchrophasors” and other unsexy electrical equipment are helping diagnose, pinpoint and solve problems before we even notice them so utilities no longer have to deploy battalions of trucks to troubleshoot entire neighborhoods. “People don’t see it, but it’s happening,” Fox-Penner says.

What people see are blackouts, and they assume nothing has changed. Not even a smart grid can send power through a downed line. But over time it will be more reliable and user-friendly on a day-to-day basis. Nobody notices infrastructure investments when they work, but that’s the point of infrastructure—and power.
One Washington resident whose lights stayed on was Rhone Resch, who has solar panels on his roof, perhaps because he’s the solar industry’s top lobbyist. His neighbors stopped by to charge their phones and enjoy his cold beer. “It was an Armageddon situation, and our house became the beacon of comfort,” Resch says. The stimulus poured money into solar too, and installations have increased sixfold.

“That’s right,” Resch says. “That’s change.”