For a spiffier electric grid: $11 billion

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
‘Smart’ meters allow for easy monitoring of energy use.

The economic stimulus package as crafted by the House of Representatives includes $11 billion to modernize America’s electric grid.

About $10 billion of that money would go for upgrading the transmission system so that it’s more reliable, efficient, and redundant. The program, part of the stimulus plan's green initiatives, would also make the grid more interconnected so that traditional and renewable power plants in, say, the Midwest could send their surplus electricity to the East Coast.

But the package also reserves $1 billion for “smart grid” and “smart metering” pilot projects, which would begin to energize, even revolutionize, what some call the world's largest machine.

If the Obama administration were to expand the “smart grid” effort to a five-year $50 billion program, the result could be curbed growth in energy demand, a curtailed need for new power plants, and a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. That would also create about 238,000 new jobs, according to a recent study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

At least a dozen prestimulus pilot projects are already up and running, allowing homeowners like Dennis Arfmann to monitor their electricity use and carbon dioxide “footprint.”

“Everyone has different drivers,” says Mr. Arfmann, a lawyer in Boulder, Colo., who has had solar panels installed on his roof and joined Xcel Energy's pilot program, Smart Grid City. “For me it’s CO2 reduction and climate change. But for someone else in Houston or California, it may be peak pricing and saving money,” he says. “That's why these portals [monitors] are so critical. They help you see what's happening.”

So far, Arfmann has cut the energy use of his 4,500-square-foot home by 40 percent by, among other things, hanging up laundry rather than using the dryer.

In the future, a smart-grid system would let homeowners decide whether to pay a hefty premium to run their “smart” washers or air conditioners during peak power periods or allow their power companies to shut off those appliances automatically.

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