The Obama administration offered more details yesterday on how it plans to distribute $4.5 billion in grants to speed the development of smart grid technologies across the nation's electric power system, from transmission monitors to digital household electric meters.
The administration also announced a top-level meeting in early May with smart grid industry leaders intended to speed up the pace of developing technology standards that will enable smart grid devices and software to work together.
Vice President Joe Biden used a visit to Jefferson City, Mo., to update plans for the grants, authorized by the 2009 stimulus bill. The Energy Department said it is beginning a 20-day comment period on a draft process for issuing $3.375 billion in grants for smart grid technology installations by power companies. The grants, ranging from $500,000 to $20 million, must be matched by the recipients. The agency is also seeking comments on its plans to award grants of $100,000 to $5 million for grid monitoring devices.
Another $615 million in stimulus funds will go to smart grid demonstration projects focusing on regional programs, storage technologies and advance monitoring devices called phasor measurement units that give grid control room operators instantaneous data on power flows. Phasor controls could allow more power to move over the grid without overloading lines and equipment.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said he and Energy Secretary Steven Chu will chair a meeting with grid technology leaders in early May to seek agreements on smart grid standards.
"Industry leaders at the meeting will be expected to pledge to harmonize industry standards critical to developing the smart grid, commit to a timetable to reach standards agreement and abide by the standards devised," Biden's office said in a statement. This session will precede a previously scheduled May 19-20 meeting on smart grid technical standards.
Laying down rules for the energy revolution
The meetings represent the administration's attempt to accelerate a smart grid standards regime, called for in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. The standards would cover equipment, software and communications protocols.
The Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been under pressure from Congress to complete the standards. NIST Deputy Director Patrick Gallagher acknowledged last month that the process is so complex it has created "a bit of a jam" in setting priorities for the standards. "Right now, what is desperately needed is an overall road map," Gallagher said.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners have collaborated on a set of criteria that they say DOE should use in funding smart grid demonstration projects. Grant applicants should show how their technology will support the reliability of grid operations while protecting the network from cyber-attack, the organizations said.
On the one hand, smart grid advocates are pushing for a common architecture of communications and software protocols to link the parts of the smart grid together. On the other hand, the more open the network is, the more potentially vulnerable it may be, experts say.
"A smart electricity grid will revolutionize the way we use energy, but we need standards in place to ensure that all this new technology is compatible and operating at the highest cybersecurity standards to protect the smart grid from hackers and natural disasters," Locke said.
Grant process moving forward
NIST says it expects to issue an initial set of standards and priorities in early fall, followed by testing and certification that it wants to complete by the end of the year.
Whether smart grid grants can move far in advance of the standard setting was not immediately clear. Yesterday's action "kicks off the process of taking in applications," said DOE spokesman Tom Reynolds.
Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, said there need not be a holdup. "I don't think the NIST process will be a significant barrier at this point," he said. Pilot projects funded by the stimulus grants can help expedite standards development, he added.