Your (Grand)Parent’s Grid or a Smart Grid? From the National Renewable Energy Labs

It's almost as universal to our lives as air, but how many of us really know where our electricity comes from or how it gets to our homes? Is our energy infrastructure up to the 21st consumer's demands? Is it really worth the investment to upgrade.

Some 30 percent of the grid is 40 to 50 years old — and that’s of a network of more than 15,000 power plants, 220,000 miles of high voltage lines (the big metal towers) and another 5 million miles of distribution lines (the wooden poles outside your house). It’s not going to last. Sooner or later it’s got to be upgraded. Estimates vary, but the Electric Power Research Institute calculates we need somewhere between $338 billion and $476 billion to get to a “smart grid.”

Related: Pecan Street Smart Grid Demonstration Project

That’s not counting all the lost opportunity costs. With a so-called “smart grid,” which allows for more precise control of electricity use, a host of other advances become more practical, such as:
• Expand wind and solar power
• Move to electric cars
• Maximizing energy efficiency

The benefits could be worth up to $2 trillion, EPRI estimates. An MIT study issued today says the grid can probably meet the challenges it faces, but only with regulatory and policy changes that allow it to adapt to the future. So the real question is, when are we actually going to start upgrading the grid and where are we going to get the money for it? The utility industry, which bears the brunt of the investment here, spends about $5 billion a year and that’s not enough. The Obama administration recently pledged $250 million in loans, which isn’t going to do it either.

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