Obama Announces Massive Power Grid Upgrade

President Obama announced Tuesday a multibillion-dollar push for a "clean-energy superhighway" to replace the nation's aging power infrastructure, a plan he said would be the largest-ever investment aimed at improving the electrical grid and promoting renewable sources.

The $3.5 billion "smart grid" upgrade — bankrolled by federal stimulus money — would include high-tech electric meters to help homeowners schedule chores when power is cheapest and sensors to tell utilities when a tree has fallen on one of their electric lines. Private industry has agreed to put in an additional $4.7 billion to match the government grants.

The president made the announcement at the launch of Florida Power & Light Co.'s Desoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center. The Arcadia, Fla., facility is one of 100 projects that will be funded by the initiative. It sports 90,000 solar panels, making it the largest photovoltaic electricity plant in the country.

With thousands of blue-checked solar panels behind him, Obama said the plan, which he compared to the 1950s-era national highway project, would lead to a "smarter, stronger and more secure electric grid."

Part of the government's plan is to help move clean energy from sunny or windy places where it's generated to more heavily populated areas where the power is needed.

Obama said the current electricity grid relied on "centuries-old technology" and said the massive upgrade was long overdue.

The billions in federal funding would boost the effort to bring modern computer and communications technology to bear on the problem of energy efficiency, the president said.

"I am pleased to say that a consensus is growing to achieve" such an overhaul, he said, but he hinted at continued opposition to the changes in Congress and some areas of the power industry.

"The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition is going to fight," the president said, adding that arguments will be heard that the changes "somehow harm the economy or lead to fewer jobs."

"We've heard such arguments before," he said. "It's a debate between looking backwards and looking forward; between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future."

Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, said the current system "is outdated; it's dilapidated."

Federal funding will spur the needed modernization of the grid and set the stage for the smooth introduction of large amounts of electricity from wind or solar sources into the transmission system, she said.

Matt Rogers, the Energy Department official involved in the program, said 100 projects were selected from 400 proposed. The money would be distributed over the next two months and the work is expected to be done over the next one to three years, he said.

The government funds will allow installation of 18 million smart meters and 1 million other in-home devices, Rogers said. Within the next several years, the government and industry want to eventually deploy 40 million smart meters — wall-based units that can monitor how much electricity various appliances use and turn them off when energy is costlier to consume.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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