The latest item atop Congress’s list of stuff to haggle over is the transportation bill, legislation the Washington Post calls the “best bet for passage of a major jobs bill this year.” The threat of the expiration of authority to spend money from the Highway Trust Fund at the end of the month is motivating House and Senate leaders to reach a compromise in the coming days. Although there are certainly investments to be made in our transportation infrastructure that would contribute to America’s economic competitiveness, it’s a shame that our energy infrastructure has received such scant attention from lawmakers.
The national electrical grid is as important for economic growth, if not more so, than the national highway system or the privately owned router system that supports the Internet. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Energy funded several demonstration programs for increasing electrical system integration and reducing peak loads on the electrical grid. These efforts are commonly known as the “smart grid,” and this is where Congress needs to turn its attention.
Fort Collins, Colorado was chosen for a public-private smart grid project supported with DOE funding. Called FortZED, the project integrates five public and private institutions into a web that shares excess electrical generation during peak load periods. Some facilities, like the University of Colorado campus, have enormous backup diesel generators that can be powered up to add electricity to the system during times of peak demand. A local brewery and city facility have large solar-cell arrays that can also feed electricity back into the system.
Electrical capacity and demand is mapped across the entire web, and smart devices collect information at nodes all along the system. The map also shows machines that can be shut down during peak demand to reduce the draw on the electrical grid. In contrast, current electrical systems use a hub-and-spoke configuration in which power is produced in a large central facility and then distributed to substations and users. A smart grid flows in all directions and utilizes excess capacity across the system, eliminating the need to build additional power plants to handle peak loads.
I’m sure that many were turned off by the DOE’s Solyndra debacle, but it’s time to invest our best thinking and resources in upgrading our nation’s energy infrastructure. Watch the 14-minute video above to see the power of collaboration and creativity that comes from designing and building smart grids. If we are to restore America’s economic vitality, we need to focus on the enormous resources that are currently underutilized.