Economic Stimulus Package: Will Obama Push for a Smart Grid?

  • Published on February 5th, 2009

power lines covered with ice

Spending in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on environmental projects being debated in Congress right now already includes $100 billion in ‘green stimulus.’ But because of the stated preference for so-called ‘shovel-ready‘ infrastructure projects, long-term infrastructure projects like mass transit and a smart grid may suffer.

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The bill already includes spending for incentives for clean energy; the retrofitting of public buildings and public housing; low and moderate-income home weatherization; clean water and environmental restoration projects. But mass transit and smart grids require the kind of planning and long-term investment not encapsulated by that tidy new buzzword, ‘shovel-ready.’

As it is currently written, the plan includes $11 billion smart grid technology that helps consumers reduce their electric bills and the demands on their local power supply by encouraging them to use less energy during peak hours. Basically, building a smart-grid infrastructure would allow us to capitalize on an often overlooked source of new energy; a source of energy that is cleaner than solar, wind and geothermal. It has been said before, the cheapest source of new energy is the energy not used (or what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts“).

Almost a third of the money in the stimulus package is tagged for efficiency measures, including about $10 billion to weatherize and retrofit houses to cut electricity bills for low-income Americans, almost $8 billion to reduce energy consumption in federal and military buildings, and some $7 billion in efficiency grants for state governments to dole out. These projects are considered ‘shovel-ready,’ as are road projects and other upgrades, but the scale is still small. If we can be efficient on a micro-scale, why can’t we be efficient on a macro one?

“They’re well intentioned, and they know their infrastructure sucks, so they’re trying to do immediate reactive management to what is a very deep, endemic problem,” said Robert Bea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

At issue is that 90-day restriction stipulated by Congress, a window that was slashed in half from its original 180-day time frame. Grid-related projects in the stimulus package that aren’t so shove-ready include $8 billion to help fund construction of thousands of miles of new transmission lines, bringing renewable energy from their rural sources to urban areas, where they are needed most.

“These initiatives are a win-win for a strong economy and a healthier environment,” said Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club’s National Campaigns Deputy Director, in a statement. “They will create good jobs for people here in America and reduce our dependence on dirtier energy sources like oil and coal by promoting the shift to wind and solar power and high energy performance, low carbon cars and buildings.”

Although some traditional electric meter companies are crying foul over standards language in the Senate stimulus package, companies like GE are embracing the push for a smart grid.

As President Obama and congressional leaders work to reconcile the two different stimulus plans and get something passed quickly, many hope the ‘shovel-ready’ stipulations do not prevent real infrastructure from getting passed.

“Unfortunately the approach is a quick fix, and it’s what we’ve been doing for decades. It’s a patch-and-play approach to solving our infrastructure needs,” says Pat Natale, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Image: CC licensed by flickr user pfala

About the Author

is the founder of ecopolitology and the executive editor at LiveOAK Media, a media network about the politics of energy and the environment, green business, cleantech, and green living. When not reading, writing, thinking or talking about environmental politics with anyone who will listen, Tim spends his time skiing in Colorado's high country, hiking with his dog, and getting dirty in his vegetable garden.

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