Obama’s grid

Written by adam


The New York Times speculates:

> President Dwight Eisenhower is remembered for creating the nation’s system of interstate highways. Judging from the enthusiasm of his secretaries for “smart grid” projects, perhaps President Barack Obama aspires to be known for transforming the nation’s electricity system.

Let me help out this reporter with a super-secret scoop: Obama absolutely aspires to be known for transforming America’s grid. It’s hard to imagine a policy development that could be more over-determined. Let’s review.

* Reality bites, part 1. Our national grid is antiquated. We’d need a new one even if we weren’t heating the planet.
* Reality bites, part 2. We are heating the planet. A smart grid is essential to ramping up clean energy production. Putting this another way, if in eight years we haven’t made a lot of progress towards a new transmission system, we’re pretty well hosed.
* Everyone ♥ infrastructure spending. Contrary to a bizarre idea that’s recently floating around the green blogosphere, the public and politicians alike go all fluttery for big splashy infrastructure projects.
* Everyone ♥ technological innovation. No politician ever went wrong touting ‘Merican ingenuity and can-do awesomeness.

On top of this, there’s no natural political constituency to oppose smart grid development. There will certainly be plenty of eminent domain battles, regulatory hurdles, and bureaucratic turf wars to gum up progress, but these simply aren’t problems of the same magnitude as the coal lobby.

So, yes, in fifty years time, we will almost certainly all be talking about how it’s about time to replace Obama’s grid.

You May Also Like…

Sea Change At The SEC

By Erin Craig Like a frog in slowly heated water, we don’t tend to notice momentous changes happening right around us...


  1. obama clean coal

    The coal industry is concerned that the focus on stringent greenhouse gas laws will severely curtail their industry. The fear is that the climate change policy would destroy the U.S. coal industry that has been a pillar of energy generation for many years.

  2. World changes

    I can certainly see the concern, but in the grand scheme of things moving to a better, cleaner, more efficient energy system will benefit the entire earth. It will put pressure on an antiquated system to become more efficient, and perhaps shut it down entirely (not quite likely though). Times change, and so must the energy grid, even if that means we need to re-educate those in the coal industry to work in sustainable energy instead. As long as jobs exist, there is nothing wrong with moving from coal to wind or solar.

  3. Steve Fortuna

    I see little reason to worry about destroying the coal industry, and any true environmentalist would celebrate its demise. Big Coal has been a source for worker exploitation, groundwater degradation and deforestation for decades. The United Mine Workers were formed in 1890 to protect workers from hazardous conditions, and throughout the 30’s mine bosses used force to jail or even kill striking ‘troublemakers’ who merely wanted to secure their safety and earn a livable wage. The coal industry brought you the poverty pockets in Appalachia, mountaintop removal, ‘the company store’, cyanide leaching, and is a blight on American labor relations. If a new smart grid can more effectively distribute sustainable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass, the American people should embrace it wholeheartedly.
    Biliton, Arco and Murray Coal are still spending millions to lobby against any forms of GHG cap-and-trade, have stonewalled class action suits for Black Lung disease and set up fiefdoms of power in WVA and KY where workers are still bullied, intimidated and disabused. If they go the way of the dinosaurs whose fossils they mine, new, better paying ‘green jobs’ will take their place which pay better, subject their workers to less danger and stress, and don’t foul their environment. Don’t fall for the “Clean Coal” lie – no such animal exists.

  4. Kerry Parslow

    Regarding the comment:
    “The fear is that the climate change policy would destroy the U.S. coal industry that has been a pillar of energy generation for many years.”
    A similar argument about the economic value of slavery was used in past centuries in attempts to counter the valid principles of abolitionists. Simply because an “industry” has proved profitable and technologically advantageous in the past is not sufficient cause to overlook the grievous ills, both socially and environmentally, that it has and continues to produce. I work in infrastructure engineering and construction and have first hand knowledge of the processes (and byproducts) involved in coal extraction and energy production. “Clean coal” is a myth — in fact, the upshot of many costly “scrubber” retrofits to fossil fuel plants is that the rework allows the operators to burn cheaper and “dirtier” coal while maintaining the same marginally regulated emissions.
    Fossil fuel power production constitutes a cancerous blight on the landscape and every effort to develop and implement alternate technologies should be the overwhelming thrust of any energy policy. If every US voter could tour an average coal-fired plant, just once, I believe there would be a nationwide mandate to do so.

  5. alex

    its the coal industry’s time to go. Just because it was around for a long time doesn’t mean it needs to stay. Slavery was around for a long time, but fortunately it went the way of the dodo as well. Give the coal workers assurance that they can find jobs elsewhere; that’s the challenge.

  6. Steve Fortuna

    According to the National Mining Association, there are 81,000 people employed by the US coal industry today. Retraining them and placing them in cleaner, safer industries (such as construction of the new Smart Grid) should take under $2B, which could be recouped by any meaningful carbon tax or cap & trade mandate.
    Not only is ‘clean coal’ a myth, it is simply displacing released carbon from the atmosphere into watersheds or the toxic ash ponds that recently spilled in TN. The carbon released from combustion has to go somewhere, and there is currently no viable technology to extract and safely & efficiently inject it into oil shale or sequestration tanks.
    Let’s start building the grid of the 21st Century so on-demand, decentralized distribution becomes the norm.

  7. Kerry Parslow

    Naturally, there is always a concern for the tradtional workforce when an industry is down-sized. BUT, skills are transferable, particularly those involving a high level of manual dexterity and technical competence. When Pittsburgh went through the process of losing her core industry of the major steel mills in the 70’s and 80’s, many of the more ambitious workers successfully slid into the construction trades. The fact is that the head-count in the highly-skilled construction trades (particularly in the industrial arena) has significantly dropped over the past 3 decades due to the attrition of an aging population and the driving down of wages by the loss of influence by the trade unions, which were also the source of almost all of the best training programs. Skilled trades have been unfairly devalued and young people are no longer attracted to these occupations, many of which require more rigorous training and a higher aptitude than the average college degree. As both a college graduate AND a skilled tradesperson, I can attest to the equivalent value of BOTH undertakings. The financial benefits and long-term security, not to mention the daily job satisfaction of working in the building trades, is a message that needs to get out in the new “concrete” economy which we’re looking at, an economy that produces REAL goods, rather than vaporous “intellectual property” and speculative property value inflation.
    This skilled manpower deficit is one area that needs to be addressed nationwide if we are to proceed with the massive infrastructure projects proposed by the Obama administration. You can’t build bridges, power grids, highways and schools off-shore — we need to recruit and train a talented workforce to expedite these projects. The skills utilized in mining are, for the most part, directly transferable to those needed in construction.

  8. Kate Rooks

    Even if we only upgrade the grid, without switching to renewable sources (I am in support of renewable sources), we will improve our efficiency by 30%. Alot of energy is lost during transmission because of outdated technology and distance.

  9. KYC

    Sorry I do not see your point. With any advancement, there is always vested interest attempting to slow it down. The coal industry is no exception. I am not here to bash the coal industry as we are still using 60% of electricity based on burning coal. However, we just cannot afford to continue to use coal as our primary energy source.

  10. Bill

    Carbon sequestration is a theoretical technology that has gained popularity recently, but it is NOT a viable solution. It is a band-aid measure that will at best transfer the burden onto future generations, and at worst result in environmental catastrophe; imagine for a moment a the cery real possibility of carbon injected into the ground being released over a very short period of time.
    The environmental impacts of such a massive atmospheric release of carbon would be catastrophic. The risk of such a release from deep-ocean carbon storage is, admittedly, much lower but it comes at a cost of severe ocean-acidification. This is where you recall that coral reefs are made of calcium carbonate, which will inevitably dissolve in an acidic ocean.
    Storage of carbon is not permanent, and in the amounts required to make a significant impact will be very expensive. I would propose that money spent on development and implementation of carbon sequestration technologies would be better placed on permanently reducing our release of carbon, rather than developing storage methods so we can “stay the course”…

  11. Anonymous

    Again, look to Pittsburgh, once again ahead of the curve in adapting to new technology — in fact, we are already well along in modernizing our portion of the national power grid. The local utility is 3 years into a 5 year half-billion dollar project upgrading their transmission and distribution system, including the replacement of all 69kV with 138kV equipment and conductors, expansion of new gas-insulated substations and the installation of some major interconnecting lines using underground high-efficiency fluid-cooled cables. Anyone familiar with the local geography should appreciate the challenges that have been overcome in this project.
    Pittsburgh (once dismissed as the “smokey city” and still erroneously viewed as a run-down brown-fields post-industrial site by people who have never been here) is now considered by many to be among the “greenest” major cities in the US. We are far from perfect, but we’re trying (and we didn’t wait for a federal program to get going with what needed to be done)! Now, if we could just phase out the ring of coal-fired plants that surround us………..

  12. Kurt Schoeneman

    81,000 employed in the coal industry? About the same number of agricultural workers unemployed because of drought in California. Any connection?

  13. Steve Fortuna

    Good point Kurt. Maybe big coal’s Churchillian motto should be “Never have so few cause such harm to so many”.

  14. Jay

    It would be a real coup for green jobs to become so attractive in the coal states that the coal companies would have a hard time filling jobs and that local politics would swing in favor of clean technologies. Quietly out-competing dirty technologies would be an end-run around the vested interests.

  15. Jack

    Last night the President included “clean” coal as a source of energy. Does he really believe it’s possible or is it because the “stimulus” bill included $2.3B for a clean coal power plant project in his home state?

  16. TheDon

    I have watched Obama come a long way from his original coal position early in the campaign, which was calling for “coal for cars” – liquefaction technology that would hugely increase greenhouse gases for transportation (but get us off foreign oil, in theory).
    The fact that he dropped that and now just (seemingly) tips his hat to the “clean coal” marketing phrase is actually an improvement. He moved our way during the campaign.
    I too would love to see the clean coal myth fully exploded (fine particulates, mercury, arsenic anyone?) by this president, but reality can only take so much change at once. The distance from the previous president to the current one on the environment may yet prove to be more than this nation can handle, let alone if Obama were to attack the coal industry head-on.
    He had the “gall” to ask for a carbon cap last night in the speech to Congress. Anything that raises the cost of coal is a good thing for all of us.
    These aren’t baby steps folks, these are true strides. Hopefully we’ll get there in time…

  17. lee flanders

    The main problem with carbon permits is they will drive up the cost of energy.For those of us on fixed income it is causing a great hardship already.The point every one misses is that our economic problems began with high energy costs. Every one I know is burning wood instead of oil because of the high cost of oil.

  18. Adam Stein

    Hi Lee,
    Carbon permits will drive up the cost of energy, at least in the short term, and this is certainly a problem. Under the plan that Obama recently outlined, most of the money raised from the sale of carbon permits will be given back to citizens, and those on a low fixed income should come out ahead financially. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you should let your congressman and senators know.

  19. Kerry

    People complaining about “the high cost of fuel” need to realize that we in the USA have been living in a fool’s paradise in that regard for 40 years or more. Just look at what the rest of the world has been paying for gasoline in the past decade — two to three times what Americans paid! Last year’s “spike” to $3 and $4 a gallon petrol simply adjusted it to where it should have been per inflation and market demand. Artificially low fuel prices for Americans have had devastating long-term impact over the past 20 years: people stopped buying fuel-efficient cars and demanded gas-hog truck-like vehicles; they built ever-larger houses, farther and farther from city centers and neglected mass transit. There was no financial incentive to do otherwise!
    We’ve been spoiled, folks, and we and the world are worse off for it. Yup, fuel is expensive, and it should be. Carbon credits are one way to divert the societal and environmental costs to those who are most wasteful or destructive, and reward those who are energy-thrifty or who might bear the secondary costs inflicted by inefficient production by others. This should eventually give industries and institutions more incentive to clean up their acts.

  20. lee flanders

    there are plenty ways of producing inexpensive energy and they can be done with out another tax to burden the taxpayers !!!

  21. Steve Fortuna

    It’s difficult for me to have sympathy with the “cost adverse” crowd who see everything in terms of a short term, ‘what’s in it for me’ context. There are huge benefits to everyone in getting ‘off the grid’. Imagine how much we pay for power of all kinds today and then imagine the savings we could reap if we generated our own electricity and motive power through wind, sun or biofuel sources.
    The government taxes booze and cigarettes in part to help pay for the negative health and social impacts of their abuse. Since no one forces one to drink or smoke, this is a voluntary tax. Carbon is no different. When affordable, green energy is available at no more price premium than can be netted via tax credits, it is in the consumer’s best interest to buy alternative fuels and go carbon neutral. Getting to the point where solar, wind, biofuels and hydrogen are cost competitive will take a massive infusion of captial, stimulated by government incentives, but the billions of dollars this movement will provide in jobs, reduced healthcare costs, reduced defense appropriations and payments to oil tyrants, the more we can invest in education and infrastructure. About time the US had more scientists, engineers and skilled tradesmen making tangible assets in the USA, and fewer lawyers and MBA’s who dream up Ponzi schemes, credit futures and other “derivatives”.
    I support a carbon tax and cap & trade legislation where all funds will channel into R&D and techniques to drive production costs down to mass acceptance. The cost of fossil fuel consumption in geopolitical, environmental and health terms dwarfs any pay as you go tax I can imagine. You should go to Europe and see the transportation alternatives people have when faced with $7 gas. Imagine if you will, an era where cheap, clean, renewable power is available universally and is practically unlimited. It is a revolution that will impact society as much as the Renaissance or Industrial Revolutions, and will take human relations a leap forward. When no one wants for food, power, the basic resources of life, we can start communicating and trading in a truly free market. I think even Adam Smith would approve.

  22. Anonymous

    Sound like a true elitist to me those on a fixed income have no choice when we are disabled and no longer able to work.(I live in the country and used to live in a city and would rather die than live in a city again)

  23. Steve Fortuna

    Hey anonymous….great screen name you chose there. What if the gov’t gave the disabled and fixed income pensioners vouchers and tax credits so you could get off the grid at virtually no cost? As a country dweller, you must be used to having a higher sense of self-sufficiency than the average urbanite. Do you have an aesthetic or moral problem with bypassing the electric or gas utilities in you community….maybe even feeding your self-generated power back into the grid for cash? Would you instead prefer to subsidize Exxon’s record profits, or would you rather ensure accept heating oil subsidies from Venezuela’s state owned oil company? Tell me again how allowing you to choose green without a lot of cost and a short term payback is ‘elitist’?
    At one time we allowed 8 year olds to work 12 hour days in dangerous factories. We don’t allow that anymore and society is better off for it. Are you so enamored of the status quo you can’t begin to imagine a better way of life? Get off the label maker and contribute to the dialog so the disabled and poor have an advocate as we move toward a 21st Century energy policy. If you are silent or recalcitrant, you know the special interests will corrupt policy to fit their short term profit goals. There are dozens of groups fighting for funds to promote energy efficiency and self-sufficiency for rural and limited income folks. You may be disabled but you can still think, type, lobby and organize. You are not powerless, nor are you alone. Your voice deserves to be heard and not silenced by the powerful, but it is best by joining with others and organizing to protect your interests. Here is one of many dozens of rural energy co-ops and initiatives:

  24. Kerry

    Calling someone “elitist” for supporting progressive and constructive alternatives to doomed, destructive and outmoded energy technologies is a cop-out. We all have choices to make AND we all need to make a few sacrifices. You say you choose to live in the country, which probably means that you live in a single-family home (low energy efficiency) and possibly in an area where you can’t use natural gas for heating. This is your choice. So, instead of expecting the government to guarantee your preferred status-quo by price-supporting dirty fuels for you, why don’t you explore options to make your home more energy efficient or pressure your local municipalities to offer programs to help citizens with upgrades and alternative fuel sources? My cousins live in an area of New England where tax credits and grants are available to help low-income homeowners retrofit old oil boilers to propane or electric heat systems and to insulate their older homes. Have you explored those options in your area? There are even volunteer groups that will help disabled and elderly people fix up and winterize their homes (I volunteer with one myself.)
    I’ve chosen to live within 2 miles of my job to save commuting energy (I am on a bus line and drive less than 2000 miles per year in my car.) I’ve installed a high-efficiency gas furnace, double-paned windows, low-watt PL lamps for all my lighting and a set-back thermostat (I keep the house at 50 degrees when I am at work and at night — I use an electric mattress pad to warm my bed before I turn in and a down comforter to keep me warm til morning.) As a result, my energy bills, though somewhat higher, have remained reasonable. But I didn’t do these things just to save money (and I had to scrimp to pay for these updates) — I am trying to minimize my carbon footprint. I am no “elitist” — I am a working class person with a modest income.
    We really do have to focus on sweeping changes with potential for real long-range improvements. Just saying “make it affordable for us to keep doing what we’ve been doing” has not worked — it has led us to the mess we are in.
    Yes, I am sensitive to the struggles of fixed-income people with higher heating fuel costs, but, as the previous writer so well explained, the temporary pains we must all confront as the market adjusts to these new realities will be worth it to EVERYONE in the end. In fact, low income people (who are most vulnerable to the fluctuations of global-market pertoleum prices) are among those who stand to gain the most relative to their resources.

  25. Jay

    We actually NEED energy prices per unit to go up coupled with energy efficiency (using a lot fewer units) to reduce the total cost to consumers. Cheap energy means people get lazy in the way they use it, which makes global warming worse. One winter, I helped a neighbor with her heating bills, but what she really needed was help to insulate her log home. With modern insulation and good windows and doors, folks can cut back on heating and cooling costs. I was suprised at how easy and inexpensive it was to insulate my rather small house. Fortunately the new administration is ramping up assistance for low-income people for weatherization. It is prudent for everyone to get ready for much higher energy prices. Insulating our homes and downsizing our commutes (less distance, less often, or a smaller car) are fairly obvious things to work on before costs go through the roof.