Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Day One of the National Smart Grid Conference: It's time to repower America

Editor's Note: NPI contributing writer Patrick Stickney is covering the National Smart Grid Conference in Spokane today and tomorrow. Stay tuned for additional reporting of what's happening in the Lilac City here on The Adovcate.

Earlier today, the City of Spokane served as the launchpad for an exciting event that's bringing together many of the folks who are going to play a leading role in the effort to repower America: the National Smart Grid Conference.

I have the pleasure of covering the conference for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and I must admit, so far it's been a quite an experience. I'm hardly a veteran of the press corps, and combined with the fact that it seemed I was the youngest person in the room, I felt out of place - at least when I first arrived.

The conference began almost promptly at 8:00 AM. Spokane Mayor Verner opened with a welcoming address, followed by statements from State Senate Majority Leader Brown and U.S. Senator Cantwell. All were excited about the conference being held in the Northwest. Senator Cantwell noted that the region has a "key role" to play in the coming revolution that will reshape electricity generation in America.

As she put it, the potential transformation of our grid constitutes the "largest economic opportunity in the twenty-first century."

Senator Cantwell then ceded the stage to Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Phil Moeller. Moeller, a native of Spokane, talked about topics such as intersystem communication standards and cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is actually one of the big issues here at the conference, because a smart grid would rely on digital networks. (And unfortunately, such networks can be hacked). Moeller warned that a serious hack could potentially shut off more than a million meters at once, thus making cybersecurity a top priority.

New technologies - like a smart electric grid for America - may carry new risks, but they also offer great promise. Our current electric system, though complex, is inefficient, and an outage to one part of the system can easily disrupt other parts hundreds of miles away (as was the case in the Ohio blackout of 2003, which many speakers cited as an example that demonstrates the need to build a smart grid).

Another reason to switch is increasing demand. We're still using the same system that was designed decades ago, before the technological explosion of the last half century. It's now typical for an American family to own a huge array of gadgets, from multiple computers and phones and televisions in the home to printers, surround sound systems, and digital video recorders.

All those devices sip energy, putting strains on our dated infrastructure and contributing to frequent, disruptive power problems.

A smart grid is also needed to harness the potential of renewable energy. The two most widely available sources of renewable power are the sun and the wind, and power from those can't be generated consistently, because the wind isn't always blowing at the same speed, and the sun isn't always shining.

The old system wasn't designed with renewable energy sources in mind, so the power generated by a wind farm or solar plant can't quickly be sent to where it's needed, and simply storing that energy for later use is extremely difficult.

With a smart grid, energy could be transferred on demand - in other words, shifted to the places that need it at the time. And if a particular wind farm or solar plant wasn't producing enough energy, the grid could tap other sources to compensate.

Many speakers also talked about mini-grids - basically, a network of on-site power systems. Imagine solar or small wind generators connected to houses that could be turned on if large amounts of power were being used elsewhere. The hope is to eventually build a more decentralized system that is safer and more reliable.

Deploying a smart grid will be essential to the success of the environmental revolution - a coming social and generational transformation that will reshape our country. The environmental revolution will ultimately occur out of necessity (even though it will also be good for our planet) because so much of our nation's infrastructure is falling apart.

LeRoy Nosbaum (CEO of Itron) explained: "By waiting too long [to convert to smart technology] the effect on us will be discomforting. The effect on our grandchildren will be dramatic."

Tim Thompson of Thompson Smitch Consulting Group echoed that sentiment near the end of today's session, noting: "We really are doing this development for our grandchildren... and they will judge us for how we implement it."

Even Republican Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers showed up to tout the benefits of building a smart grid. I found her joy about the conference and the potential of the technology largely ironic - for had Congress voted the same way she did, the conference might not have happened, considering that the stimulus is a big impetus behind much of the innovation that's going to make this all possible.

Following the morning's high profile speakers, the conference split up into three breakout sessions going on simultaneously.

I attended the first one, which was titled Building a National and Local Pacific Northwest Smart Grid - Research, Development and Technological Needs and the Role of Renewables (whew, what a mouthful).

Topics of discussion included transmission systems and new software for handling data. Perhaps, though, the most important point agreed upon by the panelists was that the infrastructure (sensors, smart thermostats, etc.) needs to be put in place before we can take advantage of power management innovations.

Logically, that makes sense. Without that infrastructure, we can't do all of the cool things a smart grid would allow us to do - like informing consumers of current electric rates or allocating energy to where it's needed.

Refreshingly, the companies that will comprise the forthcoming smart grid industry don't view government as the enemy. Maybe that something has to do with the fact that $4.5 billion stimulus dollars are being channeled towards developing a smart grid, but, beyond that, government is seen as a catalyst that will provide the standards and the interoperability needed for the smart grid to work.

There are also problems threatening the stability of the current dilipidated system that need to be solved, with government playing an essential role.

Government is seen as an integral and necessary part of the public private partnership creating a smart grid - not the evil bogeyman that conservatives claim it is. What's exciting is that deploying a smart grid has the potential to both strengthen our common wealth and create new jobs in the private sector.

Tomorrow the recommendations that were offered today in the breakout sessions will be refined, so they they can be presented to Congress.

I'll be there to watch and observe, and I look forward to sharing that experience following the conference's conclusion tomorrow.


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