'Smart Grid' Technology: Obama's Smart Move for Infrastructure Security

If, like me, you happen to live anywhere in the northeastern portion of the United States, you may well remember what you were doing on the afternoon of August 14, 2003. It was one of those particularly hot, sticky days when it seemed far easier to focus on indoor activities and leave the air conditioning running. Then, around four in the afternoon, the air conditioner stopped. This was accompanied by the lights going off, the stereo falling silent, and the overhead fan slowing winding to a halt.

Initially we assumed that a fuse had blown, given that the house we purchased was somewhat old with an antiquated electrical system. But we quickly realized that our neighbors were also without power and the traffic lights were extinguished. Had some random drunk mowed down a phone poll? No. It was the Great Northeast Power Blackout of 2003 and it stretched on for longer than most of us wished to tolerate in our modern, comfortable lives.

It was only the latest in a series of such failures, which included incidents in 1965 and 1977 that took out large portions of the eastern seaboard and Canada. Blame was laid on everything from an aging system of transformers and high tension lines (absolutely true) to solar flares and insect swarms (also plausible to various degrees). The one thing which few people realized was that these failures were pointing to a dangerous shortcoming in our national infrastructure.

With this in mind, it was somewhat encouraging to hear that President Obama had slated a portion of our frequently wasted stimulus dollars to improving the nation’s power grid. Under this plan, roughly 100 utility entities across the country would receive funding to modernize the grid, forestall rolling failures across service areas, install smart meters at both residential and commercial locations, and upgrade security systems to prevent hostile attacks from hackers.

The more than $8 billion injection may not provide anywhere near the number of  jobs which the White House is claiming, but the potential benefits are beyond question. As the linked analysis points out, one of the major problems with the grid is not just its age, but the fact that we have appended numerous high-tech, computerized functions onto an ancient system not designed for such modern adaptation. Meters on buildings and local transformers are running on Nixon-era technology, while central distribution struggles to incorporate 21st century security and load balancing technology.