Building the Smart Grid: The Burden of Following Through on Campaign Promises

The expiration of the newspaper is not an entirely salutary event. Any time three centuries of tradition reach their terminus, thoughtful observers have to take notice. Even so, it's apparent that the violent displacement of the newspaper for the online journal has it's virtues: for one thing, the printed word was an all to static medium. It used to be that members of the cognoscenti would whisper about particular events caught on film, without ever necessarily having witnessed them. Have you seen Eisenhower's farewell address, his "military-industrial complex" speech? How about Lyndon Johnson's notorious Daisy ad? Today, thankfully, such audio-visual artifacts are as accessible as any speech transcript these venerable figures have left us.

Though not quite of the same historical caliber, then Senator Obama's interview with Rachel Maddow, just days before his election, is a case in point. After being prodded with a particularly provocative question: whether the U.S. should institute an FDR style public works program, Obama surprisingly answered in the affirmative:

One of the most frustrating things over the last eight years has been the ability of George Bush to pile up debt and huge deficits and not have anything to show for it, right? So, if you're going to run deficit spending, then it better be in rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our sewer lines, our water system, laying broadband lines.

One of, I think, the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid. Because if we're going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we're going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that's generated from those car batteries, back into the grid. That can create 5 million new jobs, just in new energy.

This was the soon-to-be President at his most ambitious, seemingly standing astride history, all but declaring the era of small government over, and announcing the arrival of a new New Deal. But, as we've seen in the case of expanding the broadband network, grandiloquent rhetoric is no substitute for the dry business of budgeting enough federal dollars to make an appreciable impact. Well, then, how about the case Obama seems to highlight here, the need to develop a new smart electricity grid? Is the administration providing the fiscal capacity to tackle this particular element of our national infrastructure? For that matter, what is a smart grid?

Essentially, a smart grid is the result of information technology being integrated into the power system, that is to say, the creation of something like an energy internet. A combination of digital meters and sensors would allow for the more efficient allocation of energy. For example, instead of paying fixed rates for electricity, "dynamic pricing" would allow consumers to pay less during periods of low demand, such as at night. Real-time information about power consumption would allow individuals to modify their usage, also depending upon overall demand. The reverse is true as well: utilities would gain the ability to signal households to reduce consumption during periods of high energy usage. With this type of two-way communication, blackouts like the massive 2003 outage that shutdown the Northeast would be much less likely to occur in the future.

This same ability to modify electricity demand makes a smart grid amenable to renewable sources of energy. One of the characteristics that have made solar and wind energy problematic is the fact that they're inherently unpredictable. A series of cloudy or windless days would necessarily put a damper on any power system dependent upon these sources. Again, however, a smart grid would be capable of adjusting demand in response to these sorts of vagaries of God and nature, and thus would make it more economical to expand the use of renewable energy. Moreover, a new system of long-distance high voltage lines would be able to transport electricity from states with extensive wind farms, to larger population centers. This isn't the only aspect of modernizing the energy grid that's environmentally friendly. In the future, individuals would be able to sell energy back onto the market, for example from residential solar panels or from energy stored in hybrid electric cars. In other words, by the most optimistic forecasts, the smart grid offers up a green vision of a society rationally allocating electricity where it's needed, shedding it where it's not, and developing an ever-greater reliance upon renewable sources of energy.

That's the promise, anyway. What can we say about our government's dedication to shaping it into reality? Almost exactly a year after the Maddow interview (and since the election), the President provided an answer: $3.4 billion in federal stimulus grants to 100 different projects across the country. The funds award a veritable grab-bag of recipients including cities, utilities, private firms, and manufacturers and will cover the installation of 18 million smart meters, 700 automated substations, and 200,000 new transformers. It all sounds impressive, emblematic of a shift to a can-do spirit in America, of public-private partnerships, of synergy between corporations and government to rebuild the country and make it competitive into the 21st century. There's just one small problem: Uncle Sam isn't providing enough money to make it happen.

To put matters in perspective, it's useful to look abroad. The first major smart grid initiative, the Telegestore project, was installed by the Italian utility Enel over a five year period ending in 2006. Today the system covers 30 million Italians at a cost of 2.1 billion euros (or about $2.5 billion at the time). Now, this is a not insignificant investment in a country like Italy, with a little less than 60 million people. It becomes rather less impressive in a superpower of over 300 million. And of course, the Telegestore system is not even a fully comprehensive national grid to begin with. How much would such a unified national smart grid cost in America? Former Vice President Al Gore's group Repower America put the price tag for such a network at $400 billion. Meanwhile, the industry consultancy the Brattle Group estimated that rebuilding the grid would require an investment of $900 billion over twenty years. In other words, what the administration is undertaking amounts to a very significant symbolic gesture, or a modest, though encouraging beginning, but not much more.

And those 5 million jobs that Obama promised from building a smart grid a year ago? In his speech detailing the federal grants, that figure shrunk to "tens of thousands" of jobs created or saved.

So, with regards to the smart grid, as with investments in broadband, or in high-speed rail, or for that matter when dealing with health care reform, the problem facing America isn't so much that of misplaced priorities in Washington anymore, as of insufficient commitment. A green New Deal could, in theory, rebuild our infrastructure, employ millions, and emerge as the basis for a new wave of industrialization in this country. But, this will only happen if the dollars appropriated for these ends begin to match the soaring scope of the rhetoric that we've become so addicted to.

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How America Can Improve Broadband Access and Speed: Lessons from Australia

Sometime in the twilight decades of the twentieth century, as our avowed allies caught up with and sometimes outpaced us economically, a new cottage industry arose in America. It went something like this: you would first name a particular field of achievement, like science and math education, health care, public transportation, or state infrastructure. Next, you'd roll out a profusion of statistics, all demonstrating with startling unanimity that the United States was fast falling behind it's peers in the industrialized world.

The latest episode in this ongoing drama concerns America's lackluster position in worldwide rankings for broadband connections. In the most recent OECD statistics, the U.S. has stagnated at 15th place in terms of overall broadband penetration. Moreover, our internet connection speeds are relatively sluggish, with an average download rate of 5.1 Mbps: the populations of South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have much wider access to fast fiber-based connections.

The Great Recession offered an opportunity for expanding broadband access in this country. Unfortunately however, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (otherwise known as the stimulus bill) includes only $7.2 billion dollars spread out over several years for this purpose, with a focus on serving rural hinterlands and Indian reservations. This isn't nearly enough.

Australia provides a striking alternative model of how a geographically large and relatively sparsely populated country, can make a long-term investment in broadband. Over the next eight years, Kevin Rudd's Labor government is going to spend an extraordinary $31 billion dollars (or $43 billion AUS) on providing a nationwide fiber optic broadband network. Fully 90% of Australian homes, including those in remote outback settlements will be linked into the network, with the remainder being offered wireless connections. Most importantly, because the main network will be fiber optics based, it will provide extremely fast 100 Mbs download speeds.

To put this in perspective, the United States is about 15 times larger, by population, than Australia. So, by at least this crude measurement, a comparable broadband development program here would require an unbelievable $465 billion dollars, or almost half a trillion dollars. Of course, this is misleading because we would benefit from economies of scale, and from the fact that the continental U.S. is about the same size as Australia. Nevertheless, this provides some perspective on at least this one small portion of the stimulus bill, and how in reality the U.S. is spending much less per capita on infrastructure than even relatively conservative countries like Australia.

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Why the Chinese Will Win in Afghanistan

The debate in Washington over Afghanistan is sustained by the familiar dichotomy of troop increases versus withdrawals, targeted counterinsurgency tactics versus nation building. Underlying it all is the remarkably durable ideological framework according to which all American wars are either World War II redux or Vietnam all over again. But, what if the question of whether the U.S. wins or loses is almost besides the point? Robert Kaplan raises the question: is China the inevitable winner from the war in Afghanistan?

IN Afghanistan’s Logar Province, just south of Kabul, the geopolitical future of Asia is becoming apparent: American troops are providing security for a Chinese state-owned company to exploit the Aynak copper reserves, which are worth tens of billions of dollars. While some of America’s NATO allies want to do as little as possible in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, China has its eyes on some of world’s last untapped deposits of copper, iron, gold, uranium and precious gems, and is willing to take big risks in one of the most violent countries to secure them.

In fact, this is a growing trend in those countries lucky enough to have been recently subject to U.S. cruise missiles. The pattern is clear: country X is bombed into submission, which subsequently leads to a regime change, and finally, the new government proceeds to signs massive deals with our major geopolitical rivals China and Russia.

In 1999 the Clinton Administration waged a war against Milosevic's Serbia, ostensibly in defense of the Kosovar Albanians. Over a year later, following claims of fraud in federal elections, Milosevic was peacefully overthrown, and the new regime announced it's intentions to join the European Union. The stage was set for a new era of pro-Western good feelings, and American-led corporate domination. Instead, Russia's state-owned behemoth Gazprom proceeded to buy up Serbia's gas and oil interests: essentially the country's energy sector has been annexed by Moscow. And with the current economic crisis having hit the Balkans hard, the Serbian government has most recently negotiated two separate billion dollar loans with both Russia and China. Somehow, against all the odds China, whose embassy was notoriously bombed during the Kosovo War, is reaping the benefits from America's role in that conflict.

The same story has repeated itself in Iraq. After more than a decade of obsessing over the country, the U.S. invaded and toppled Saddam's Baathist regime in 2003. Famously, while an anarchy of looting descended upon Baghdad after the initial U.S. victory, American troops were tasked with defending one particular government building: the oil ministry. The move quickly became a symbol for the mercenary motives that drove the war, and seemed to lend credence to the slogans of protesters the world over. So, today, with the apparent triumph of the Surge and the quelling of the Sunni insurgency, have American companies come to monopolize Iraq's oilfields? Well, not quite. Once again, the Chinese have made a vigorous play for a market newly opened by the American military: their largest state owned oil company CNPC just signed an initial agreement along with the British BP to develop the oil fields of Rumaila. In other words, the largest oil field in Iraq is now part owned by the Chinese. Another major Chinese company, Sinopec, is currently involved in a dispute with the Iraqi government over the Taq oil field in Kurdistan, but at the moment they too stand to profit indirectly from the American invasion.

So, the fact that this pattern is reemerging in Afghanistan should hardly qualify as a shocking development. On the contrary, what's surprising is that both parties in Washington still seem so committed to a militaristic foreign policy that seems, on a strict cost-benefit analysis, only to significantly benefit a small number of U.S. corporations - most notably, our military contractors. As a general rule then, whenever the U.S. topples a Third World dictator, while red and blue state patriots alike stand united in support of their commander-in-chief, we can assume that American troops will unwittingly end up defending the interests of state owned companies from Russia and China.

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Do Europeans Support Gay Marriage?

Josh Marshall discusses how capital punishment, though banned throughout Europe, is actually consistently supported by percentages comparable to that seen in U.S. polling on the issue. This leads Andrew Sullivan to argue that this is an instance of "civilized" parliamentary independence from public opinion. In other words, certain human rights shouldn't be put to a popular vote:

The difference in Britain is that parliament routinely defies the popular will, as Burke urged them to at times. And because they treat this question - and others, like abortion and gay rights - as matters of personal conscience which political parties should not interfere with. You can call this anti-democratic, but you can also call it civilized.

All this is well and good, and of course Americans have a long historical experience with certain enumerated rights in our constitution (the Bill of Rights comes to mind). However, he slips when he makes the comparison to gay rights. Is it the case, for instance, that in those European nations where same-sex marriage is enshrined in law that a progressive elite has simply acted against majority opinion?

This simply isn't so. The first country to legalize same-sex marriages was the Netherlands, a country known for tolerance and religious liberty going back to the 16th century. Where did the Dutch masses stand on the issue? Well, 62% were in favor of expanding the definition of marriage. In Spain, where gay marriage was legalized in 2005, in the face of Vatican opposition, polling found that a day before the bill passed, 61% of the population supported the measure. Nine months later... support remained the same, and was 62%. Norweigans passed a bill in January 2009 which transitioned the country from having legal gay civil partnerships to full marriage rights. Where did the public stand? 58% supported it, and only 31% stood against this expansion of human liberty. In Sweden, same-sex marriage was just legalized last April. But, not only did a whopping 71% of Swedes support the right before parliament passed it, but even 68% of Lutheran pastors were alright with it!

So, sure, Europeans may agree with us to an extent on capital punishment. But in those countries where gay marriage is legal, strong majorities stand in support of that right.

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