MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The push is on to make the nation's aging electricity grids smarter so that it can handle our growing demand for electricity without devastating blackouts like the one that hit in 2003. The Obama administration is also trying to make the grid greener to help address global warming. As part of our series on the smart grid, NPR's Richard Harris found that being smarter and greener don't necessarily go hand in hand.
RICHARD HARRIS: There's so much hoopla about the smart grid. General Electric for the first time ever bought a Super Bowl ad to sell something that consumers can't even buy. Remember the scarecrow dancing along the power lines?
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man #1: Smart grid technology. GE will make the way we distribute electricity more efficient, simply by making it more intelligent.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) If I only had a brain.
HARRIS: But giving the grid a brain doesn't necessarily mean it will make green decisions. Likewise, the big push to expand the electric grid into areas rich with renewable energy doesn't guarantee that the new improved grid will be more climate-friendly. We'll get to that issue in a minute.
But first about smart equaling green. Smart grid technology means several kinds of innovations. One is that both customers and utilities will be able to monitor electric use minute by minute. Steve Nadel, who runs a nonprofit called the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says that information alone doesn't make the smart grid green.
Mr. STEVE NADEL (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy): As one friend of mine says, a smart grid needs smart programs and smart rates.
HARRIS: Smart programs could, for example, help people see how they're using electricity so they can find painless ways to conserve. And smart rates could create incentives for people to save electricity by charging more at some times and less at others. In principle, cheaper energy should encourage environmentally friendly objectives. But Nadel says not all smart grid experiments have used their brains.
Mr. NADEL: Some utilities have programs to encourage nighttime lighting, you know, gee, you know, make your house look beautiful. Make it more secure. Light it up like it's Times Square or something. That's an example. And don't worry, it's only two cents a kilowatt-hour. We'll give you a special nighttime discount.
HARRIS: In some cases, people use not only more energy, but dirtier energy, too. Why dirtier? Well, in some parts of the country, nighttime electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. They're usually the cheapest source so they get used first. When demand is higher during the day, the additional electricity is more likely to come from cleaner natural gas. So in the parts of the country that rely heavily on coal power, nighttime energy means dirtier energy. Nadel says the good news is that smart grid pilot programs so far have by and large encouraged conservation.
Mr. NADEL: Some of them have saved quite a bit of energy. Some have actually built some load. And the devil is always in the details.
HARRIS: Details also bedevil another feature of the expanded smarter grid - new transmission lines. In California, San Diego Gas and Electric has been pushing to build a major new power line into the neighboring Imperial Valley. In this online ad, the utility is selling its new transmission lines partly on the environmental benefits.
(Soundbite of online ad)
Unidentified Woman: The Sunrise Powerlink is needed for the San Diego region. All customers will benefit by improved reliability, accessing lower cost power and linking customers to renewable power sources.
Ms. DIAN GRUENEICH (Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission): Anybody who's proposing a transmission line in the United States these days is going to claim the line's going to be used for renewable - it's going to be a green line because it's mom and apple pie.
HARRIS: Dian Grueneich sits on the California Public Utilities Commission, which ultimately voted on the merits of the Sunrise Powerline. San Diego Gas and Electric said the power line would bring huge amounts of clean solar and geothermal energy into San Diego.
Ms. GRUENEICH: The claims by the utility were very hotly disputed.
HARRIS: The utility was basing its arguments on clean energy sources it hopes will be developed in the Imperial Valley in the coming years. But Grueneich says hopes and aspirations are a lot different from legally binding commitments.
Ms. GRUENEICH: Existing contracts that SDG&E had signed from this area, the Imperial Valley, would only fill up about 20 percent of the line. And that means then the other 80 percent of the power that would flow over this line could easily - would likely - come from coal-fired power plants elsewhere in the western United States.
HARRIS: The public utilities commission voted to approve the line anyway. Grueneich cast the only no vote. She says this sort of debate is likely to play out nationwide as power companies bid to string new lines as they expand and strengthen the electric grid. Power company investors will make a profit no matter what kind of electricity the lines carry. So Grueneich says we need laws requiring power companies to buy lots of green electricity.
Ms. GRUENEICH: This isn't rocket science.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. GRUENEICH: It is actually a good thing. We don't need to develop whole new technologies. We're not making bets on, will we be able to develop a whole new way of doing things? It's just really being serious about if we're going to spend this money, if we're going to call something green, let's make sure it happens.
HARRIS: And that comes down to politics. Indeed, bills are now wending their way through Congress that would help assure that the smart grid is also green.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
SIEGEL: And you can find more out about green energy and the U.S. electric grid at our Web site, including an interactive map, that's at npr.org/grid.