Obama administration unveils programs to build the smart grid

As expected, at an event at the White House on Monday, Obama administration officials unveiled a slew of programs and initiatives that will aim to help add information technology to the power grid to make the grid more efficient and more secure. The Obama administration has already invested $4.5 billion in recovery investments into smart grid projects, which were then matched by $5.5 billion in private money says the administration, and these new projects unveiled on Monday are the administration’s way to follow-up on those funds.

However, the new smart grid programs are noticeably light on funding commitments, which isn’t too surprising given the recent budget struggles.

It’s “important not to hurdle down this path without a plan,” said John Holdren, President Obama’s science and technology advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the event on Monday. Nancy Sutley, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, pointed out at the event that creating smart grid projects and tools will create jobs in the U.S. that can’t be outsourced.

We’ve already installed 5 million smart meters nationwide, and we’ve deployed smart grid technology and research projects, and these new programs are a continuation of this commitment, said Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the event.

So what are the new programs? Here’s 9 ways that the Obama administration is looking to spur the smart grid:

  1. As part of the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service, the administration is offering a minimum of $250 million in loans for smart grid projects in rural places in the U.S., as well as a potential $106 million in upgrades.
  2. The administration is launching a new non-profit program called Grid 21, which will focus on spurring consumer-facing tools that will enable consumers to reduce energy consumption, but also maintain privacy and security. The trade group the GridWise Alliance said in a release that Grid 21 will launch a new energy-savings contest called the “Biggest Energy Saver Campaign,” in conjunction with utilities Oncor, CenterPoint Energy, and San Diego Gas & Electric, smart meter makers Itron (s ITRI) and Landis+Gyr and integrator IBM (s IBM). The contest will deliver ways for consumers to reduce energy, and also will have prizes  for software developers that can create new tools.
  3. The Department of Energy is working on new projects, including a crowd-sourced map to track progress of smart grid projects, a student competition around home energy efficiency, and an Energy Information Administration project on measuring energy efficiency progress.
  4. The administration launched an initiative that will seek to share the lessons learned from the smart grid stimulus investments, will hold a series of stakeholder meetings, and has created a new website: www.SmartGrid.gov.
  5. The administration unveiled a new “Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team,” that will review clean power and transmission line projects and improve “federal coordination” for getting clean power projects deployed. The team will be led by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Energy.
  6. The administration put an emphasis on grid security issues, and says it will create ways for grid operators to have access to information about threats to the power grid, help companies deliver new security tools, and create security standards.
  7. In the President’s fiscal year 2012 budget, the DOE has asked for funds to build a “Smart Grid Innovation Hub,” that will be a collaboration of federal researchers, companies, and utilities representatives, and will support R&D and project deployments.
  8. The DOE’s high-risk early stage program, the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) will support new smart grid research and is working with utilities and military bases to test new tech.
  9. The administration released a report that focuses on four ways to help modernize the grid, including how to better align economic incentives that will spur smart grid technologies, how to focus on standards and interoperability to boost innovation, how to help empower consumers with energy tools, and how to increase grid security and resilience.

Overall, the programs don’t offer much more funding commitments, in comparison to the smart grid stimulus funds, and utilities might find these new programs to be “smart grid lite.” According to a new report from Black & Veatch launched Monday morning, utilities think that one of the biggest barriers to deploying a smarter grid is that once the stimulus funds have been committed there is uncertainty about how much more federal funding will be available.