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October 28, 2009

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Obama will spend big to improve power grid

THE Obama administration is giving a jolt to the futuristic "smart" electric grid, hoping to more quickly bring the United States' power transmission system into the digital age.

President Barack Obama will announce this week that he is making available US$3.4 billion in government support for 100 projects aimed at modernizing the power grid. The projects include installing "smart" electric meters in homes, automating utility substations, and installing thousands of new digital transformers and grid sensors.

White House officials provided details of the initiative prior to the president's scheduled visit to Florida Power & Light Co's DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, the country's largest photovoltaic electricity facility.

Officials have argued that a more modern grid is needed to give consumers better control over their electricity usage and costs, and to spur development of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

The US$3.4 billion in grants from the government's economic stimulus program will be matched by US$4.7 billion in private investments, the officials said. The smallest grant will be US$400,000 and the largest US$200 million.

"We have a very antiquated (electric grid) system in our country," said Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change. "The current system is outdated, it's dilapidated."

Browner said the federal funding will spur the needed modernization of the grid and set the stage for the smooth introduction of large amounts of electricity from wind or solar sources.

The push to essentially bring modern computer and communications technology to the electric grid has been under way for some time but this will add momentum.

Matt Rogers, the Energy Department official involved in the program, said the government funds will allow installation of 18 million smart meters and 1 million other in-home devices as well as more modern thermostats to allow homeowners to better monitor their electricity usage.

The government wants to deploy 40 million smart meters - wall-based units that can monitor how much electricity various appliances use and turn them off when energy is costlier to consume - within the next several years.

Other projects funded under the program will result in the installation of 850 sensors to allow utilities to better monitor the grid; the installation of 200,000 digital transformers to reduce the risk of power outages; and the automation of 700 grid substations.

"This will save or create tens of thousands of jobs," said Jared Bernstein, economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.


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