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

Many New Transmission Lines

The institute has no specific policy on a federal transmission grid but is leery of the federal government's delving into what has been the purview of individual states. Its members would be opposed to "the heavy, intrusive hand of the federal government overtaking states rights," Owen said.

Still, a recent report commissioned by the institute concluded that if the United States is going to add clean energy sources to the grid without suffering from blackouts, many new transmission lines are needed.

To that end, supporters are campaigning to "Repower America" with 100 percent clean energy within 10 years. "We are trying to open up a dialogue on the possibility of updating the electric grid so that it can run completely off clean energy within a decade," Cathy Zoi, CEO of Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, told ABC News recently.

"Besides helping to fight climate change, updating the grid will actually save money by increasing the efficiency of energy, as well as create jobs in the process."

The nation has about 10,000 large-scale utility power plants, with more than 95 percent of them spewing hazardous byproducts such as mercury. And there are about 157,000 miles of high-voltage electric transmission lines in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

To achieve a cleaner system, new transmission lines would be required to transport renewable energy many miles (solar power from the Mojave Desert, for instance) so the large-scale facilities could be taken offline. Renewable energy isn't always found in abundance close to population centers, meaning that the challenge would be to transport it while keeping escaped energy to a minimum.

Adding new high-voltage direct and alternating current lines that move energy long distances, which existing alternating current lines cannot do, would conceivably contribute to making renewable energy a significant part of the country's energy mix, engineers say.

Sun Not Always Shining

And if the grid had "smart" features and ways to store energy, intermittent availability (when the sun isn't shining, for instance) would be less of an issue, Zoi of the Alliance for Climate Protection said.

Engineers would also incorporate automated two-way communication systems between utilities and users in order to maximize efficiency. This would, for instance, allow energy buildings to generate their own electricity from solar or wind and sell it back to the grid. Homes and buildings will be able to be their own power plants.

"To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America," Obama said in an economic speech shortly before taking office. "That means updating the way we get our electricity, by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation."

Vice President Joe Biden has linked the need for a new national grid to economic recovery. Creating a new grid "would create tens of thousands of new jobs, high-paying jobs," he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" recently.

"It needs to be done and it will have a long-range payoff, not just for next year and the following year, keeping the economy from nose-diving, begin to turn the nose of that aircraft up, but it will also change our energy picture. It will deal with global warming," Biden said.

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