December 14, 2008 at 6:14AM
by Jim DiPeso
A few weeks ago, the term du jour was team of rivals. This week, shovel-ready is the term most frequently on the lips of pols and pundits.
The incoming administration and Congress plan to direct a fire hose of borrowed money at the flames engulfing the economy. Many of those dollars will be directed at the shovel-ready projects ready to break ground and put people on payrolls within weeks.
In an economic emergency, its certainly a good thing to put people to work right away spraying insulation into home attics, retrofitting wasteful cooling systems in federal buildings, and shortening the disgracefully long list of deferred maintenance projects at national parks and wildlife refuges.
Still, to put on green eyeshades for a moment, there ought to be some room on the ever-lengthening shopping list for supporting projects that will have long-term economic development value. Ideally, borrowed money should be used for long-lasting capital projects, so that the costs will be shared by the generations that will benefit.
An example of a long-range project is modernizing the creaky, overstressed transmission system used to move electricity from power plants to end uses, such as my computer and the one that youre reading this on.
Everyone loves renewable energy, but the unfortunate reality is that the richest troves of renewables are in places where people arent.
Sunshine pours down on the Southwests empty deserts. Wind tears across the lonely plains. Ringo Starrs dreamy tune notwithstanding, no one lives under the sea in an octopus garden, so wave and tidal power plants also need wires to move juice to urban load centers.
A related problem is that the system doesnt have an Internet-like network capability to integrate rooftop solar cells, real-time pricing, and two-way communications connections with appliances and other end-users that would allow for running the power system more cleanly, efficiently, and reliably than today.
The two transmission issues are related. The extent to which local energy sources, such as rooftop PV and plug-in-hybrids vehicles, can supply power will determine how many more big-ticket long-distance wires need to be built to move electricity from distant renewable plants.
Jon Wellinghoff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has called for national planning to figure out goals, financing, siting, and cost allocation issues for transmission. Part of that planning ought to be reserving some headroom in the ballooning federal budget for financing research and demonstration of new grid technologies.
Its not yet shovel-ready, but a transmission system that can accommodate a low-carbon, efficient energy network will be to everyones benefit for years to come.