Consensus on Need to Update Energy Delivery but Debate on How to Get There

If the likes of President Obama, former Vice President Al Gore and environmental advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. have their way, the United States will build a so-called smart grid that does for energy what the Internet has done for communication.

In their vision of the future, renewable energy like wind power from North Dakota will course through electric transmission lines on the way to population centers like Chicago. Or consumers will generate their own solar power at home for plug-in cars and sell any excess energy to their neighbors or back to the smart grid, which is described as a way to upgrade the distribution of power over long distances.

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"For less than a trillion dollars a year, every American can have clean energy forever," Kennedy told ABC News. "Compare that to the $700 billion the U.S. spends on oil a year."

Whatever the cost, some experts say, adopting the kind of emissions-free energy sources needed to manage climate change will require a new "highway system" to move energy throughout the country, drawing on smart-grid transmission, energy efficiency and renewable electricity.

Among the biggest impediments to upgrading America's infrastructure are the myriad state and federal authorities that govern the existing power grid, which is a patchwork of electricity networks that is losing the technological race.

First and foremost, a modernized electricity grid would require federal legislation to create new power lines, control circuits and communication systems criss-crossing the country to connect all power plants and buildings, as well as new training for the people who would service the system. Consistent with worldwide interest, a comparable effort is underway in China, for instance, although its socialist government has the luxury of expediting the process.

Here, the Obama administration has a plan of its own, to double renewable energy capacity within three years and add more than 3,000 miles of new transmission lines on the way to building a new electricity smart grid.

The $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act President Obama has proposed would allocate $32 billion to transform the nation's energy transmission, distribution and production systems by allowing for a smarter and better grid and focusing investment in renewable technology.

It would also allocate $20 billion in renewable energy tax cuts and a tax credit for research and development on energy-related work, and a multiyear extension of the renewable energy production tax credit, although the financial crisis has damp ended excitement, at least in the short run, for these kinds of incentives.

And loan guarantees and loans to public and private transmission owners provided in the stimulus would accelerate already planned projects that might have otherwise slowed down in a recession, which has dampened the pursuit, at least in the short-run, of these environmental initiatives.

The environmental component of the recovery act would be part of the "largest investment in the backbone of our economy since the Interstate highway system," Obama's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, said on "Meet the Press" recently. "It's going to double renewable energy."

For all its ambition, however, the United States is unlikely to undertake a prohibitively costly overhaul of its entire electrical grid, said Jim Owen, spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, an association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric power companies.

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