The recently announced alliance between technology giants General Electric and Google may provide the lobbying arsenal necessary for the U.S. to overhaul an outdated electric grid widely considered as a barricade to a low-carbon future.
The collaboration brings together two industry leaders with significant investments in U.S. renewable energy. Their focus on electricity infrastructure may stimulate improvements in transmission efficiency and utility access to clean energy sources, industry observers said.
The companies' early messages indicate support for more national leadership. "The current regulatory and economic model is failing to drive the innovation and investment we need in today's electric grid," a joint statement said [PDF]. "We will work to overcome regulatory and institutional barriers, and advocate for appropriate incentives."
The U.S. government acknowledges costly updates are necessary to meet electricity demands, connect a burgeoning renewable energy sector with markets nationwide, and implement plug-in hybrid vehicles on a large-scale. But states and the federal government are divided about who should pay.
The companies' main request is for federal leadership on digital "smart" grids, a technology that provides utilities with greater control over power source selection. With smart grids, utilities can tap an energy source when it is most reliable-a solar power plant during a sunny day, for instance. The advances are expected to accelerate renewable energy development and prevent blackouts, regardless of the power source.
Smart grids also provide consumers with advanced information about their electricity usage, which encourages energy efficiency. "We make the gadgets, smart meters, and people like Google could make the software," said GE chief executive officer Jeff Immelt at a Google technology conference where the partnership was announced.GE and Google seek to fix an electric utility grid that the American Society of Civil Engineers has described as being "in urgent need of modernization" in its infrastructure report card. Existing transmission lines are overburdened, while the country's electricity demand continues to rise. Congested power lines prevent utilities from accessing cheaper sources of generation that may be located farther away, and instead they often rely on natural-gas facilities that are easier to site near urban areas.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that wind power could supply 20 percent of the country's energy needs if efficient transmission lines are built across the country. Large amounts of renewable energy sources are currently located too far off-the-grid to be tapped, such as the windy mountains of South Dakota or the geothermal hot beds of Nevada's deserts. The department estimates the additional transmission capacity would cost $60 billion, spread out between now and 2030.
Immelt said the system is a realistic goal, but federal funding is crucial for its development. "Clean energy is imminently doable, imminently solvable," he said. "[But] there's no such thing as perfect free markets-it's a market that needs a catalyst (from the government) to say this is what we'd like to see done, and then the entrepreneurial dollars will flow freely."
A more difficult challenge, however, may be overcoming current regulations. States and private utilities have little incentive to approve long transmission lines that benefit the nation as a whole. The 2005 Energy Policy Act gave the federal government permission to approve transmission if states were unwilling, but several U.S. senators have complained that such action is too aggressive.
Mike Taylor, research director at Solar Electric Power Association, a utility consultant group, said the partnership could be most influential with on-going developments of regional renewable energy zones - prioritized areas for siting transmission lines and power generation - and an intercontinental transmission system that could deploy renewable energy more efficiently. "I would hope GE and Google scan that horizon of what's already happening and reach-out their hands rather than march on their own," Taylor said.
GE often leads the pack among U.S. corporate lobbyists, due to its control of a diversity of industries-from jet engines to TV studios to wind turbines. This year alone, GE spent nearly $2.2 billion on campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Renewable energy legislation, including a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, has been a company priority since GE launched its Ecomagination initiative three years ago, which promotes clean energy technologies.
Google's philanthropic branch has several renewable energy ventures of its own. Last month it invested $10 million in advanced geothermal energy development as part of its Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal initiative.
At a Senate energy committee hearing last week [PDF], Google's director of climate change and energy initiatives, Dan Reicher, called for federal energy efficiency and renewable energy standards
"Our vision is a 21st century U.S. electricity system featuring hundreds of thousands of megawatts of renewable power, millions of plug-in vehicles, and tens of millions of energy efficient homes and businesses," Reicher said. "The biggest impediment to achieving this vision is not technology or finance; it's policy, particularly on the national level."
It's great to see the likes of Google and GE helping to focus resources on updating our policy "infrastructure" to keep up with the cleantech revolution!
I'd only add that currently, the "last mile" of the electricity grid that leads into each of our homes is regulated not by the feds, but by each state. Bringing smart grid technologies to bear on this "last mile" of wire is absolutely vital to making our grid more intelligent, but it will be challenging to align the feds and the states to make this happen quickly.
Here's to hoping that federal leadership, spurred by Google, GE and others, brings about state cooperation to usher in the smart grid!