Energy unveils $100M training program

The Energy Department announced it would spend $100 million to train workers to upgrade the electric transmission system, as Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned China was ahead of the United States in the development of so-called “smart grid” technologies.

Chu made the announcement about the new worker-training program, which will be paid for by stimulus money, at a conference on smart grid efforts across the globe that opened Monday in Washington. Chu also announced a related $44 million program for state public utility commissions to encourage more local smart grid efforts.

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A smart grid is an electric distribution system that leverages software and power-line improvements to increase the efficiency of the transmission of power from producer to user and makes it easy for consumers to cut their energy use.

Energy policymakers have talked for years about the need to upgrade the country’s transmission grid to make it both more reliable and more efficient to cut down energy loss in distribution. That would have the effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions through conservation.

But the smart grid gained new prominence as an issue during the debate over the stimulus package when Obama made the creation of green jobs a central piece of the administration’s efforts to end the recession. Dozens of towns, companies and lobbying firms have registered to lobby on the issue since, seeking some portion of the $4.5 billion in stimulus money for grid improvements.

General Electric, Google, Wal-Mart, Accenture and American Electric Power have all lobbied this year on the smart grid issue, because they sell products that help make a grid “smart,” sell the power or are large users of electricity.

Chu opened the conference, called GridWeek, which lasts four days. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke is scheduled to give the closing address on Thursday.

Improving the grid is central to another administration goal: expanding renewable energy usage. Renewable energy is intermittent, which Chu said makes it much tougher for utility engineers to ensure electricity is available where it is needed. Even windy areas have calm days and sunny regions can be cloud-covered from time to time.

A smarter grid would make it easier to transfer power from region to region to cover shortages, in part through new high-voltage lines that can carry power hundreds of miles with minimum energy loss. Technology improvements on the other end could make it much easier for households that have added computers, cell phone re-chargers and video game consoles to the traditional refrigerators, dishwashers and televisions to monitor their usage.

The climate bill remains stalled in the Senate, dimming the possibility of a final far-reaching agreement at upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. As a result, more modest advances like grants for smart grid improvements, though esoteric, may take on even greater focus in the administration’s climate efforts. 

Success or failure on global warming is more likely to be determined by achievements made year in and year out to install cleaner power sources and reduce energy demand than by whether leaders agree to a final deal in Copenhagen, Chu indicated.

He also warned that although the United States invented the modern transmission system, it is lagging behind China and Europe in the race to perfect it.

“China is ahead of the rest of the world in transmission technology,” Chu said.

Like most matters involving energy, transmission is not an easy political issue. Controlling who builds a transmission line involves state versus federal rights and has been a difficult issue for Congress. Companies, meanwhile, often buck at efficiency standards due to cost concerns.

Ultimately, though, Chu predicted Congress would be moved to support climate and other energy goals in order to promote the development of green jobs.

“Why should we surrender high-tech manufacturing to anybody else?” Chu said.